• 4 Amazing Mental Health Benefits of Exercise You Should Know

    Working out has great physical benefits. It helps with weight loss, burning calories, and getting fit. But working out also has some amazing mental health benefits. This article will help you discover 4 reasons to workout with your mental health in mind.

    Weight loss, burning calories and getting fit. These are all great reasons to work out. And it’s mostly like what we think of whenever the word exercise is mentioned.

    These are some great reasons to work out, but while they’re important, they’re not the only reasons you should be exercising. That’s because there are some amazing mental health benefits to working out that may even outweigh the physical benefits.

    In a previous article, I discussed the four super important benefits of exercising. The focus of that article was on morning workouts.  Instead of the timing of your workouts, this article is going to specifically focus on the mental health benefits of exercising.

    #1. Exercise reduces depression and anxiety disorders

    For a very long, I was under the impression that Muslims are less prone to depression and anxiety related issues. I couldn’t understand how someone who had a strong connection to Allah subuhanawuta’ala could experience anxiety and depression.

    As soon as I got out of my bubble, I realised that Muslims can also suffer from these issues.  Don’t get me wrong—whenever we feel depression and anxiety, we should reflect on our relationship with Allah. And there’s no better way to strengthening this connection than by practising our religion.

    But at the same time, we also need to accept that this isn’t the sole cause of these issues. Muslims, like everyone else, have personal, family, and psychological issues that may lead to mental health diseases.

    So, although it’s essential that we first and foremost turn to our Creator for all our difficulties, we do, however, need to take action to eliminate these mental health disorders. Trust in Allah, but tie your camel first.

    One of the best ways to alleviate these disorders is by working out. Countless of studies1 2 have found that working out helps with

    • Mood
    • Stress levels, and
    • Concentration

    Think of working out as a free therapy that all of us can take immediate advantage of.

    #2. Exercise boosts brain power

    Along with these psychological effects, Dr John Medina, in his outstanding book Brain Rules, lists 12 simple, but powerful rules to get the best out of your brain. Implementing these rules in your life will, inshaAllah, improve your brain power so that you learn, think and act better!

    The very first rule he starts with is exercise. Using scientific evidence, he demonstrates how exercise can boost brain power and improve cognitive functions.

    He says, “Exercisers outperform couch potatoes in tests that measure long-term memory, reasoning, attention, problem-solving, even so-called fluid intelligence tasks.”

    In an interesting study in the University of Dublin, Ireland, scientists found that students who work out regularly had a better memory than students who didn’t work out. So, if you are a student or if you just want a great memory (like most of us), I don’t know of a better way to boost your brain than by working out.

    Still need another reason to work out? The number 1 factor that predicts how well you will age (mentally and physically) depends pretty much on if you workout on a regular basis.3

    #3. Exercise improves your energy levels and productivity

    If you are a runner or if you’re a regular at the gym, then you know what I’m talking about. After your workout, you feel like you can move a mountain and like you’re at the top of the world. That’s because not only is your energy level increased, but your mental clarity and alertness are substantially increased too.

    Improving both your mental and physical energy levels means that you’re able to be more productive and focused throughout your day. For example, researchers found that participants of a study they conducted who worked out reported fewer feelings of fatigue when they engaged in physical activities.

    #4. Exercise helps control your cravings

    If you have ever tried to lose weight, you know how hard it is to fight food cravings. Though there isn’t a shortcut for this problem, exercise can help you reduce those cravings.

    In another case study, researchers found that high-intensity exercises may curb hunger pangs and decrease food cravings. This study also suggested that exercise decreases calorie intake compared to “mental-work.” That’s because exercise decreases our calorie intake, whereas “mental-work,” work that requires a lot of brainpower, increases our desire for food.

    So, if you are really craving some food while doing mental-work, do this:

    1. Do 20 pushups
    2. Rest for 10 seconds
    3. Do 20 squats,
    4. Rest for 10 seconds
    5. Repeat this 3 times!

    Trust me; you’ll notice a difference, insha Allah!

    3 Churchill, J.D., et al. “Exercise, Experience and the Aging Brain.” Neurobiol Aging 23 (2002): 941-55.

  • When is the Best Time to Workout?

    Exercise is incredibly beneficial, not just for your body but also for your mind. If you would like to increase these benefits by at least 10x, then you need to workout at the right time of the day. Sounds cool, right?  

    I was among those who workout late in the evening. I thought that the timing wouldn’t play a big role in achieving my lean and healthy body.

    But I was totally wrong. My views changed when I stumbled upon 100s of research studies that discussed the benefits of working out in the morning. This is because doing your workouts first thing in the morning has life-changing benefits. For example, the time you choose to do your workouts impacts your sleep, mood, learning ability and even appetite.

    I’ve been enjoying these benefits and I want you to enjoy them too.

    Here are the 4 major scientific reasons to workout in the morning:

    Morning workouts help you sleep better

    It goes without saying that sleep is necessary for a healthy mind and body. Getting a good sleep isn’t just an option, rather it’s an obligation we have towards our body.

    Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) said, “…your body has a right over you, your eyes have a right over you…” (Sahih Buhary).

    So how can you get the sleep that you need? Latest research suggests that morning workouts help us sleep better. A study conducted by the Appalachian State University found that working out in the morning is ideal if you want to get the best sleep at night. Researches tracked the sleep patterns of participants who worked out at a three different times: 7am, 1pm or 7pm.

    The results of this study were astounding: morning exercisers slept longer and they spent 75% more time in the reparative deep sleep cycle than the other two groups.

    What this means is that getting a longer deep sleep cycle is more important for your health than the total time of your sleep. And the increase in the deep sleep leads to a better body and a longer life, bi’idnillah!

    Morning workouts improve your learning ability

    In the outstanding book Spark: How exercise will improve the performance of your brain, Dr. John Ratey describes how physical activity sparks biological changes in the brain. Based on neuroscientists’ discoveries, he argues, “Exercise provides an environment in which the brain is ready, willing and able to learn.” He also cites interesting research that was done in a high school in the United States. This particular high school wanted to find out whether the morning workout before school would give their students a boost in reading ability and in other subjects.

    The results were outstanding. Kids who worked out in the morning showed a staggering 17% improvement in reading and comprehension. Did you say, “wow”?

    There is no better brain enhancement drug than exercise!

    Morning workouts improve your mood

    We know smiling is a beautiful sunnah. And to perform this sunnah from our hearts, we certainly need to be in a good mood.

    Here is the thing, physical activity as one of the first things you do in the morning helps you to improve your mood and focus. It also helps improve your self-esteem, motivation and attention to details. Those are quite a lot of benefits that come from simply changing the timing of your workout!

    And what an excellent way to start your day, right?

    Neurotransmitters such as serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine influence a host of things in our mind and, in particular, they regulate our mood, anger, aggressiveness, attention and even our satisfaction. Exercise elevates these neurotransmitters and helps us along the way to improve our mood.

    Morning workouts help to buffer the daily stress

    Stress is bad for us and we know it. As much as we want to avoid stress, we have, at times, no control over it. Though we may never be able to avoid stress in our lives, we can shield ourselves from the harmful effects of stress.

    That shield is called exercise (and of course the remembrance of Allah, but that’s a separate topic for another day, insha Allah)

    Many studies have shown that people who exercise are less prone to stress-related disorders. This is because exercise helps to buffer the effects of everyday stressors.

    The implication of exercise goes beyond stress. The research lead says, “If you exercise, you’ll not only reduce your anxiety, but you’ll be better able to maintain that reduced anxiety when confronted with emotional events.”

    Perhaps the biggest benefit of all, a morning sweat session ensures that your workout is checked off first thing each day. I mean, how many times have you had the honest intention to work out in the evening, only to have to work late, be distracted by something else or just way too exhausted to move.

    So, what positive steps are you going to take to work out in the morning?

  • 4 Remarkable Reasons to Ditch Your Chair

    “Sitting is the new smoking”, they say!  The latest research suggests that employees who spend their days sitting behind a desk are more likely to gain weight and inflict permanent damages to their bodies. If there is one thing you can change in your life that would immediately improve your health, it’s this: Sit less! The health issues that surround sitting for too long is almost as bad as smoking, if not worse.

    Having a good health is one of the key factors for leading a successful, productive life. Prophet Muhammad ṣallallāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam said, “Whosoever begins the day feeling family security and good health and possessing provision for his day is as though he possessed the whole world.” [al-Tirmidhi]

    In a recent collection of data from 41 research studies on sedentary time, researchers found a 91% increase in Type 2 diabetes when comparing the ‘most active’ individuals with the least. Another research conducted in 2013 found that people who are sitting for four hours or more each day are at a significantly higher risk of developing cancer, diabetes, and heart disease than those who sit less during the day.

    As true believers, these research studies should concern us for following two reasons.

    1. Our bodies are entrusted to us by Allah for a brief time and taking care of our body is, therefore, part of our religion.
    2. As Muslims, we are required and encouraged to be proactive. Since we are aware that prolonged sitting harms our body, we should work on protecting ourselves from the harmful consequences of this habit.

    Now if you resolve yourself to go to a gym after work to undo the damage of excess sitting, that doesn’t work either. Research studies concluded that a counteraction does not completely undo the bad effects of prolonged sitting. In other words, sitting down for 8 hours at work and then heading to the gym is not going to offset your excess sitting.

    So, what’s the solution? I hear you ask…

    Stand more and sit less. Yes, it’s as simple as that. Find ways and opportunities to stand whenever and wherever possible. Standing more helps you in multiple ways:

    1. Standing burns more calories and thus ultimately helps you to lose your unwanted body fat. A person burns at least 50 calories more in an hour than when sitting. As a result, four hours of standing a day alone helps you burn a whopping 200 calories a day, which translates into 6000 calories burned a month or around a kg (2.2 lb) of body fat.
    2. Standing boosts your metabolism. When we sit down for a prolonged period, our largest muscle group in our body becomes static and thus don’t process glucose and fats efficiently. This leads to problems with blood sugar, increased triglycerides, and higher LDL (bad) cholesterol. All these pave the way towards diabetes, obesity, and heart-related issues.
    3. Standing improves your cognitive functions. A recent study conducted by the Texas A&M Health Science Centre School of Public Health indicates that students who worked while standing most of the time were able to manage their time effectively, memorize facts easily, understand what they read better, solve multi-step problems, and organize their thoughts in writing better than those who worked sitting.
    4. Standing improves your mood and vitality. In a seven-week study, researchers in Minneapolis, USA wanted to test whether using a standing desk improves employees’ health. They found out that standing employees reported being more energetic, happier, and having a better mood and that upper back and neck pain was reduced by 54%. These results reverted back to the baseline once the employees returned to sitting.

    So standing or being active throughout the day is great for your waistline and general health. As Muslims, we know that health should be our utmost priority after imaan. Our beloved Prophet Muhammed ṣallallāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam said,

    “Ask Allah for forgiveness and health, for after being granted certainty, one is given nothing better than health.” (Related in Tirmidhi)

    And he ṣallallāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam didn’t stop there; he even encouraged us by praising health promoting physical activities.

    In an authentic hadith, which is narrated in At-Tabarani, the Prophet ṣallallāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam said, “Any action which is void of the remembrance of Allah is either a distraction or heedlessness except for four actions: Walking from target to target, i.e. during archery practice, training a horse, playing with one’s family, and learning to swim.” What is most amazing is, almost all of what the Prophet ṣallallāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam mentioned here are physical activities that promote one’s physical strength and overall health.

    So stand or move as much as possible with the intention of taking care of your body, as surely you’ll be rewarded for that action, bi’idnillah!

    In the next part of this article, I leave you with four simple strategies that will help you stand more. These are tested out strategies that are easy and could be implemented immediately.

    1. Get a standing desk. If you are self-employed, this may be the best investment you could do for your health. If you are an employee, feel free to discuss this with your boss. Most companies are very accommodative to this new trend. Here is an incredible website that shows some DIY ideas to create your own standing desk for less than $50.
    2. Decide on some trigger scenarios for you to stand up. Are you on the phone? Stand up. Reciting Quran or reading a book? Stand up! Making your morning and evening adhkar? Stand! By deciding some trigger scenarios in advance, it becomes easier for you to stand up when those scenarios occur.
    3. For example, a trigger scenario could be saying: “If my phone rings (or replace this with any other trigger scenario), I will stand up”. While saying this sentence to yourself, visualise this scenario in your mind for a few seconds and insha Allah with some practice, you will automatically stand up when your phone rings.
    4. Let others know that you prefer standing. Whether you are in a meeting or listening to a lecture, you always have the option to stand. You just need to let others know, that you prefer standing while listening to them. Usually, no one would object to your preference.
    5. Do a 5-minute physical activity every 60 minutes. Australian researchers wanted to find out a viable solution for diminishing the damage of chronic sitting. There were three sets of groups in their research:

    a.     The prolonged sitting group, who sat for almost 9 hours a day with some small bathroom and coffee breaks

    b.     Prolonged sitting group (8.5 hours) with a 30-minute physical activity a day

    c.      Regular activity breaks group, who walked the treadmill for 1 minute 40 seconds every 30 minutes for a total of 18 very small breaks over 9 hours.

    The regular activity breaks (Group C) were more effective at lowering blood glucose and insulin than a one-time 30 minutes’ physical activity as in Group B.

    In other words, you are better off taking small but frequent physical activities throughout the day rather than sitting the whole day and doing a 30-minute physical activity at the end of the day.

    Putting this into practice, I usually skip rope or do a few push-ups or squats after every 60 minutes. This regime doesn’t replace my three times a week strength workouts. If this is difficult for you to implement, I would suggest taking a brisk walk around the block for 3 to 5 minutes every hour.

    (I’ve first published this article in Productivemuslim.com and republishing it again on my own site due to popular demand)