While writing this in the afternoon, I am enjoying having a bottle of water next to me, sipping from it every now and then. Nothing strange, you might think, but for the next 29 or 30 days (depending how long the lunar month is) I will not be able to do this. The Islamic holy month of Ramadan is around the corner: tonight it will begin, meaning we will start fasting from tomorrow.
Ramadan is the ninth Islamic month and believed to be the month when Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) received the first revelations of the Qur’an. Muslims worldwide fast during this month from dawn (Fajr prayer, which is before sunrise) to sunset. This entails abstaining from eating, drinking, engaging in sexual relations, and talking or behaving badly.
It is the fifth Ramadan since I moved to Saudi Arabia in August 2010, but I haven’t been always here and fasting. In 2012 and 2013, I spent part of it in the Netherlands. However, when I am here, I try to fast, although I must say I don’t find it easy to do so. It’s not even the hunger or thirst that makes it difficult, but rather the boredom and low blood sugar/dehydration that mess with my well-being.
This year, I am determined to not let myself go down. I jotted down six strategies to keep the spirits high, which I would like to share.
1. Keep structure in my life
Throughout the years, I discovered that I am a person who needs structure. I feel good when I plan my day and get things done. While the month of Ramadan means my daily routine will be completely different (as I won’t eat during the day and most activities will take place during the night) I will try to create a new structure of breaking my fast around 7:10 p.m., do my runs around 9:30/10 p.m., go to bed at 2 a.m., get up for suhoor (the pre-fast meal) at 4 a.m., sleep until 10:30 a.m., write my articles, and prepare iftar in the afternoon (breaking-of-the-fast meal).
2. Eat healhtfully
Paradoxically, a big part of Muslims who fast Ramadan actually gain weight during this month. The reason? The sugar- and fat-laden foods usually eaten when breaking the fast. Some think they need to make up for the long hours they fasted and indulge themselves with sweet drinks and meals, while fried foodstuffs (samboosa, anyone?) are often found on the breakfast table as well.
Though I have always been quite careful what I eat during Ramadan, avoiding too many fried things, this year I will guard to eat healthfully and sufficiently, because some years I did not and ended up shivering during the day and losing several pounds. I know, many people would envy me, but for me it is not good to lose weight.
3. Exercise moderately
Another point to keep in mind this month is to take it easy when it comes to exercise. Again, many people try to get active during this month, picking up a sports routine like walking or swimming, but someone like me who is used to exercising vigorously needs to slow down during this month. A few years ago, I kept running avidly five days a week (despite feeling weaker and weaker) and ended up with anemia. I have already been taking it easy for the last couple of months (let’s say I had some overtraining symptoms), but I will have to continue to do so this coming month. I find it extremely difficult, ’cause I feel so energetic these days, but I will have to be strict with myself and run for not over an hour and stick to a moderate pace. I am thinking I may do some cross-training this month, like swimming and spinning.
4. Keep in touch with family and friends
For me, personally, Ramadan can be a rather lonely month. Most of my (expat) friends are out of the country for the summer holidays, and spending a lot of time with my in-laws – we usually break the fast at my mother-in-law’s – is fun but also makes me aware how different I am. By keeping in touch with my family and friends back in the Netherlands I am hoping to feel less isolated. I will also (hopefully) use this month to improve my Arabic, which will help me to enjoy my time with locals more.
5. Remember the things I am grateful for
Perhaps the single most important thing to do this month is to be grateful. After all, no matter how hungry, thirsty, tired, or bored I am, there are so many things in my life I am grateful for. Remembering these things will cheer me up whenever I feel down. I may try keeping a gratitude journal to remember the little and big things that make me happy once or twice a week (which, researchers say, is more effective than doing it daily).
6. Helping others
Studies suggest that one of the most effective ways to be happy is to help others or give to charity. I wrote about this today in the Saudi Gazette, which you can read here. In short, not only do happy people spend more money on others; spending money on others also makes people happier. It’s a reinforcing cycle, and I think I may give it a try this year, whether it is helping my mother-in-law preparing iftar or sending a letter to my foster child in Uganda.