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Let’s Get Active, Sisters!

Image Women who appear to be physically large are considered unhealthy, while slimmer women are generally thought of as healthy. As a result, slimmer females are discouraged from being concerned about their health, and this leads to a further decline in physical activity amongst these women.

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A young Muslim girl trying to keep fit!

When visiting the gym or fitness center, the last thing most people would expect to see is a Hijabi wearing the sweatsuit version of an Abaya, running on the treadmill, and holding the machine with one hand while trying to fix her scarf with the other. While this startling scene demands that the Hijabi gym-goers are given full points for their efforts, we are left with a further intriguing question: how exactly do the majority of Muslim women in the West keep fit?

Quite frankly, we don’t keep fit. Or we try to, but are unsuccessful. Some may argue that “Muslim women are just as physically active and fit as non-Muslim women”, but a quick analysis of the members of the Muslim community and all those body pains, migraines, heart diseases, and generally poor health will show that we too are part of the alarmingly unfit society we live in. (The US has been ranked the most obese nation in the world, with one in four children being overweight or obese.) It is therefore of utmost importance for us to investigate the causes.

There are multiple theories as to why Muslim women and girls are generally less active than our non-Muslim peers, particularly in the West. Aliza Syed, 17, said she believes that the majority of popular sports offered at schools and local teams are inflexible when it comes to the Hijab requirements of Muslim girls, and hence we are disqualified from participating. Syed said, “I really like soccer, but I couldn’t play for a team as players are required to wear shorts. The same thing goes for netball, since we can’t wear sport skirts.” Syed also said she believes that mixed-gender activities play a role. She said, “Because some activities such as Karate are usually a mixed-gender sport, Muslim parents don’t feel comfortable letting their children take part.”

Sabica Gulani, who says she has always been curious about why many Muslim women hardly exercise, said she thinks that “Muslim women often feel uncomfortable exercising and working out around males, so out the widow goes the option of running around the block every morning or going to a mixed gym.” Female-only gyms are an alternative to mixed-gender gyms; however, there are multiple drawbacks of such an option. Besides the fact that single-gender gyms are more expensive, many female-only fitness centers have large glass windows surrounding the work-out area, making it rather counterintuitive for Muslim women.

Another issue is that there is a lack of understanding among many Muslim families about what exactly constitutes “healthy”. Women who appear to be physically large are considered unhealthy, while slimmer women are generally thought of as healthy. As a result, slimmer females are discouraged from being concerned about their health, and this leads to a further decline in physical activity amongst these women.

At just 19, a teenager who was health conscious and tried to eat healthy has lost all motivation for working out and being active. “I was interested in working out and getting fit,” she explained. “But then everyone kept saying that I look slim and that it would be pointless to go through the trouble of having to work out. Now I’m just plain lazy, and can’t be bothered dong anything.”

According to another young Muslim woman, many housewives generally abuse their leisure time, and this is the causing agent of their poor fitness levels. “I salute those Muslim mothers who sacrifice their careers and education in the way of bringing up righteous and good children, but sometimes they get a bit carried away,” she said. “Most stay-at-home moms don’t exactly spend their time at home very actively. They do a bit of housework, and out comes the good 15 hours of relaxation. Depressingly, half of these women manage to put on a few dozen pounds over the long run. But it’s not just about being physically large – and unattractive to their husbands, for that matter. Even the slimmer and younger housewives complain of back pains, dizziness, feeling tired and all that stuff.”

She also thinks that children have to pay the toll of having unfit mothers. “Out of shape mothers are less likely to be active with their children, and as a result, many Muslim children, particularly those of South Asian backgrounds, miss out on having that ideal fun and energetic mother,” she said.

There are also spiritual drawbacks of being unfit. It’s much harder to make up for missed fasts, and when it comes to Hajj, some women feel as though they have not experienced the trip to its full potential. “I wish I was healthier when I went for Hajj, perhaps I could have been fit enough to climb Mt. Hira and visit the prophet’s cave or do a few more Umrahs,” said one Muslim girl. “I think it really pushed my patience when I saw other, more fit girls getting so much more done during the day, while I had to go back to the hotel to rest every few hours .”

Inactivity, when coupled with the appetizing (and equally unhealthy) daily diets of most cultural Muslim families, gives rise to many health risks and dangers. Studies show that Muslim females who migrate to the West are more susceptible to diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, and a raised cholesterol level. Suffering from weight problems is also a familiar crisis when it comes to Muslim women, and this can create difficulties and health complications later on life, for example, during pregnancy.

Being unhealthy doesn’t necessarily mean being overweight. Constantly feeling lethargic and unenergetic, easily out of breath, and having little strength (i.e. struggling to do simple things such as lifting grocery bags) are all indications of being out of shape. The younger generation is comparatively fitter than the older cohort; however, this doesn’t mean we are fit enough.

Time constraints with work, education, family responsibilities, and leisure activities usually make it hard to schedule a time to have work-out sessions during the week. But there are few general ways that Muslim girls and women can keep fit.

Physically

All that is needed is a 30-minute walk every day. Walking during breaks at work or school is an option, but if you’re the type who would rather eat lunch, then perhaps investing in a cheap treadmill and running on it while watching TV is a better option. Skipping rope for 15 minutes every day is also very beneficial, as it really gets the heartbeat going. Most unfit people are only able to skip at a moderate speed for two minutes before they feel tired, so aiming to increase your skipping time by a minute every few days is an achievable goal.

For the Muslim girls who don’t find any suitable sports to play, it’s a good idea to bring up the topic with the in-charge of the local Islamic center and see what they can arrange. Women-only swim sessions at public pools are becoming more popular in Western countries, especially as not only Muslim women with Hijab requirements, but also non-Muslim women who are unsatisfied with their body shape and size, are often in need of such facilities. Consider arranging sisters-only sporting events at local gyms or courts, such as basketball, tennis, or soccer.

Diet

Eating almost anything in moderation is fine. There is no need to go on a starvation diet (as many young girls do) for a few days, as all that does is make your body go on starvation mode, and your body tries its best to store all the energy from carbohydrates rather than using it as it prepares for the shortage. One keep-healthy tip is to consume the majority of your carbohydrates during the first half of the day, as that is when you will be burning it off. Keep dinners light and healthy, perhaps a salad. Basically, in order to maintain a healthy weight, minimize carbohydrate intake during your most inactive hours of the day.

If you have a sweet tooth, it’s fine to snack on things like chocolate and candy and soft drinks every now and then. Keep up the fluids by drinking plenty of water, eat lots of fruits and vegetables, and be sure to avoid too many fatty or salty snacks.

As always, be sure to consult with your primary care physician or a nutritionist if you have specific questions about your eating habits and overall health.

About Zara Syed

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  • Lyana

    as-Salaamun Alaikum.

    I love this article! I have been struggling with my weight for years, but none so much as in the last 4 years. I was overweight by about 15 pounds when I converted and married my husband. In the 4 years before I had my children, I put on about another 15 pounds, but after my kids, I shot up into the 200’s. I have recently joined a gym and have managed to take off 15 pounds and bring me under the 200 mark, but it is very dificult to work out for any length of time. I also am very self-consious of the men in my classes, or behind me on the treadmill, but I do my best to maintain my Hijab and trust in Allah that He will forgive me if I ever do something wrong out of ignorance. I wish there were more Ladies-Only gyms that were not so expensive and had adequite childcare. I have been in a L-O gym, but their Ladies-Only policy was not often inforced and men would come and go as they pleased.

    InshAllah, someone with the financial resources will take the initiative to start up a Muslim owned gym that could become a national chain.

    Salaam,
    Lyana

  • fitfeminist4life

    “If you have a sweet tooth, it’s fine to snack on things like chocolate and candy and soft drinks every now and then”——-
    Whilst I agree with the majority of the details in this article, I beg to differ on the line above…..It sends out the wrong message to be promoting the consumption of candy and all things sweet. For “the every now and then” approach is flawed with errors, and is likely to encourage “intermeal munching”—–a habit that Subcontinental mothers are quick to develop. Such a habit not only encourages unhealthy eating but also sets our bodies on a track more susceptible to the development of conditions like Type 2 Diabetes and other known Cardiovascular conditions. We should encourage our fellow lasses to eat and drnk healthy!

  • ZaraSyed

    Walaikum Salam

    Thank you for the lovely comments!

    Sister Lyana, your efforts are admirable and I too have experienced the “LO gym” only to find male staff wandering around (and those security cameras stuck on the ceiling corners always worry me!) .Insha’Allah there will be hijab perfect LO gyms opening up soon!

    Sister Fitfeminist4life,

    I salute those people who are able to completely refrain from eating candy and sweets 😉

    Researchers explain that most people who go on a first time diet or healthy eating plan AND decide to immediately completely cut out sweets and junk food, will most likely end up following a strict 5-7 day healthy eating plan, followed by a massive craving satisfaction session in which the person indulges in all types of bad foods, in the hope to satisfy cravings. Ideally, eating all foods in moderation (“the every now and then” approach) is the best way to keep most of our diets fun and healthy.

    Snacks in between meals are common amongst people of all ethnicities. If snacks are light and nutritious (such as fruits), they may actually serve to be very beneficial to a person trying to lose weight (as a snack between lunch and dinner means that one would eat less food (and carbs) during their most inactive part of the day). Surely unhealthy snacks (when consumed in quantities exceeding the recommended serving sizes) may lead to multiple health complications.

    Once again, thank you for the comments and suggestions. At Islamic Insights we are always looking forward to hearing what our readers have to say. 🙂

    -Zara Syed

  • masooma

    Perhaps it should just be clarified what is meant by every now and then. It doesn’t mean necessarily every day. Although, actually, a small amount of dark chocolate every day is actually healthy. But it is truth that if you have candy or soda infrequently you’ll be just fine. Some researchers say totally depriving yourself results in less success for some people because they crash big time. For healthy eating, what matters most is what your overall diet is – how much nutrition and how many calories, etc., are you consuming on a weekly or monthly basis, and how much are you burning and how many of your calories are junk? But if a person eats badly one day a month, their monthly average will still be good if they have overall good habits. But many people do not estimate how they are really eating correctly. They think they eat fewer calories than they do, or they think they eat better foods than they do. Keeping a food/calorie diary for a month could be a good idea. Also, as for intermeal munching, some researchers also say that is healthy, perhaps even healthier than the 3 large meals model. Again, it depends on what it means in terms of your overall consumption and diet. If eating an extra 300 calories at 3pm keeps you from eating an extra 1000 calorie serving at dinner time, it might be a good idea. Many people experience a real drop in blood sugar around that time of day and a little snack can help keep them going until dinner time.

    The Prophet’s (saw) advice is, of course, very sound: stop eating before you are full, eat only when you are hungry. Also said our stomachs should be 1/3 food, 1/3 water and 1/3 air.

    But aside from diet, being active is a huge area many ladies should strive to improve. Walking every day for half-an-hour is a good activity that helps not only physically but psychologically. It won’t make a huge caloric difference per week, but some. That is a minimum level of activity. Sisters might try wearing a pedometer around for a few weeks. Ladies should average a minimum of 6000-7000 steps per day and work up to 10000 steps a day as a goal. If they’re already there, then explore other activity of interest if you’re not at your health/fitness goal levels.

  • Annie

    I am pretty slim and i have been discouraged to excercise, whenever my friends have a conversation on going to gym, they just pretend i am not there. i am so nto motivated to excercise. And yeah i feel so tired, i can not carry grocery bags, can not carry my school bag for too long.

    I have really got to do somethign about it otherwise, in my 40x i will look like i am in my 60s.

    And i love the idea of presenting the excercise idea to the Islamic Centers.