Staying Fit

It is undoubtedly a serious challenge for Muslims, even the men, to pursue physical fitness. Working out in Hijab is possible but often awkward, hot, and uncomfortable – and in some cases, it is even a hazard, depending on the equipment or circumstances involved. And for men to lower their gaze in such places is a real challenge, and there is doubt about whether it is even appropriate for them to be in such a place where women routinely wear tight and skimpy clothing.

Most sisters are all too familiar with the numerous pitfalls we face seeking physical fitness. If you’re a student, there is the question of mixed-gender physical education classes required at school. Some schools even require swimming classes for graduation. So what’s a girl to do? Seek an exemption from participation, take off the Hijab, or try to find a Hijabi outfit that isn’t too hot or awkward for exercise?

What about competing in sports? Different state athletic associations have different requirements about uniforms and meeting the requirements while maintaining proper Hijab can be very challenging, depending on the sport. Is it really okay for a Hijabi girl to be competing in front of a mixed gender audience, wearing a modified uniform that tries to meet Hijab requirements but, if it succeeds, does so barely?

And what about adult women? Have you been to the women’s-only gym only to discover it has big glass windows that anyone can see in, or that the postman or a plumber might show up and walk in unannounced, or that ladies bring their sons who are young but not so young that you needn’t be concerned about Hijab? So, what should you do – wear Hijab in the women’s only gym and be hot and uncomfortable the whole time, or take your chances on a man walking in? And is it really okay to ignore that music blasting the whole time you’re there?

Or did you give up on women’s gyms due to their low quality or unavailability in your area and go to a mixed gender gym in Hijab, but try to restrict what you did so it didn’t matter if a man was hanging around? Did you try going at all sorts of odd hours to determine when it was the most empty so you could be more comfortable?

It is undoubtedly a serious challenge for Muslims, even the men, to pursue physical fitness. Working out in Hijab is possible but often awkward, hot, and uncomfortable – and in some cases, it is even a hazard, depending on the equipment or circumstances involved. And for men to lower their gaze in such places is a real challenge, and there is doubt about whether it is even appropriate for them to be in such a place where women routinely wear tight and skimpy clothing. And working out in public is a trial in itself – either the clothes are the problem or feeling restricted due to presence of the opposite sex is.

Unfortunately, this dilemma leads many Muslims to a state of poor health. A great many are not getting enough exercise, and when they do exercise, it is often low-level only, such as walking.

Sure, walking is better than nothing, but a truly solid fitness regimen includes strength training and achieving an elevated heart rate for a sustained period of time, and walking might not accomplish that. If one does choose walking for exercise, she should choose a brisk pace and consider wearing weights on the arms to involve the upper body in the workout, and add stretching.

Probably one of the best solutions for Muslims to achieve fitness is to create and use a home gym. A gym need not have lots of equipment, but it does need some space. To get a quality workout, many people turn to exercise videos. The advantage of exercise videos is that most of them are well-designed workouts that include warm-up, strength training, cardio, cool-down, and stretch without the exerciser having to think through a proper, safe, and complete workout design. Beachbody and other exercise video companies now make their DVDs with an option to turn the music off if you think it is of an inappropriate type or just annoying. You’ll still end up watching people in their workout clothes, but unless you choose certain types of videos that are questionable Islamically, such as dancing to music for exercise, usually this isn’t that big of a problem.

If you want to start a workout program, you may need to visit your doctor first, particularly if you are in poor shape. Next, make sure you have appropriate space, water, and some basic equipment such as an exercise mat and hand weights or resistance bands, and the DVD player/TV in the exercise space. If you choose not to use DVDs, a good alternative is an exercise program from a book or website or one that comes with certain exercise equipment. If you can afford it, hiring a personal trainer to at least get you started safely can be a good idea. A quality program will include pictures and descriptions of the exercises as well as plans on how many of each type to do as your fitness progresses. Look for programs that exercise all muscle groups and will elevate your heart rate. Make sure you pay attention to alternative moves and use them if you have bad knees, back, or just get really tired. And stick to your exercise program for at least 30 minutes at a time, four times a week. If you really want to see changes in your body, such as losing weight, then six days a week for an hour each day is more realistic, but takes real commitment and careful attention to your body if you are not in shape.

Working out is not something to be done just temporarily, but it should be a lifetime habit – so try to build an accountability system to help you stick with it. Set goals for yourself, both long and short term – number of repetitions, increased strength, losing weight or inches, etc. Find friends or family to join you for the workout, or join an online group where you log your workouts and encourage each other, such as Wowy.com. Taking measurements weekly to track progress can help motivate and monitor your progress towards your fitness goals. Working out will not always seem like fun, but it really can be a nice family, Islamic activity. Try to incorporate some variety geared toward activities that interest you more. As you get in better shape, you will have more fun. At the end of any good work out, you will feel refreshed.

And finally, what about working out during the month of Ramadan? Especially when the days are long, it can be a challenge to keep up a routine; however, it is possible, and it is better to keep up some activity over just quitting for the whole month. There are numerous professional athletes who continue to play their sports during the month of Ramadan without ill effect. While fasting, one might get up extra early to exercise before suhoor, or adopt a less strenuous or slightly less frequent routine for during the day. Keep in mind that exercising late in the evening is likely to keep you awake later into the night, but it is also a possibility. Drinking plenty of water in the night will be important, because exercise induces sweat which can contribute to dehydration. If you develop headaches, you are not drinking enough, most likely. And, if your body is exhausted without enough energy to complete a workout, beyond just feeling “tired”, then you need to up your calorie intake (not your fat or sugar intake, mind you) and/or get more sleep.

Get your routine in place so it will be easier to maintain during fasting, when school starts back up, and so on, and pay attention to your body and make adjustments as needed. Don’t forget to pay attention to nutrition – most people eat too much and in the wrong proportions of food groups to obtain optimal nutrition. Generally speaking, most people need to eat considerably more in the vegetable food group and less in many of the others and need to carefully watch their consumption of sugar and fat. This is true even during the month of Ramadan, when amazingly many people actually gain weight due to poor eating habits.

As you pursue physical fitness, you will not always be perfect. Don’t let a setback turn into a stopping point. If you eat poorly one day, adjust what you eat the rest of the week. If you miss one workout, make sure to make the next one. If you stop during the month of Ramadan, make a big deal about starting back up when you’re no longer fasting. Just don’t give up! Good physical fitness increases your quality of life tremendously and can be both a spiritual aim in itself as well as an aid to achieving further spiritual goals, if your intention is right.

One last piece of advice: don’t lose sight of the goal as health and fitness rather than achieving a “hot” body. The obsession on appearance in our society can make it hard to differentiate between the two, but the ephemeral nature of appearance means that if you put it as your goal, you will never be satisfied for long and you will actually end up sacrificing true physical, mental and spiritual fitness for vanity insanity.

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  • Ali Al-Musawi

    Thank You for your insightful article.

    I would just add, that if you want to get fit get the nintendo wii fitness! It really does help a lot and is fun and truly worth it!


  • Rose Mariam

    I can relate to the issues mentioned about women’s gyms. In my area, there are many Muslim women and one women’s gym that they all join on 1-3 year contracts. However, most women find out AFTER signing the contracts that men routinely come to train in that gym.

    I think that gyms that promote themselves as “women’s gyms” should respect the fact that women join them primarily for the supposed privacy that they offer, and they should cater to the needs of those women– especially if they’re making them sign long contracts.

    Many Muslim women spoke to the staff about this issue, and explained why for them it defies the purpose of joining a women’s gym if male trainers can come and go as they please. The management didn’t heed. So, we, a group of Muslim women at the gym, started a petition to get our point across at a higher level of management. Will it work? We will see, but at least this way our voices will get heard, enshallah.

  • Ali Syed

    I just wanted to say that the most important part of staying fit is the diet – which is perhaps even a bigger problem than not doing regular exercise – for Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Only then will the exercise be of any benefit.

  • Saddaf

    Vey good article. A dilemma for a lot of us on a personal level, but now as a mother,I also realise how important this issue is when making decisions abt my daughter’s sport participation.