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Meet the personal trainer coaching women through Ramadan

Evening Standard logo Evening Standard 20/05/2019 Katie Strick
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Every night at midnight, Nazia Khatun logs onto Facebook and streams her workout live across the world. It’s only a 20-minute blast — burpees, high knees, squat jumps, some stretching — but Muslim women of all ages tune in.

Which may be surprising, given that it’s Ramadan, which means abstaining from eating and drinking during sunlight hours.

But Khatun insists that fasting is no excuse to quit training: in fact, getting in the gym is just the energy boost needed to get through the holy month.

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“It’s all about teaching people to feel good,” says Khatun, 35. The Newham-born boxer turned personal trainer has spent the past three years fine-tuning what she says is a revolutionary programme, Fitness Reborn, to help women keep their spirits and fitness levels up over the 30-day period.

It’s one part fitness, one part neuroscience, and designed to help busy Londoners balance fasting with a fast-paced working culture: Google, EY and KMPG have all had her down for a session.

“Ramadan is a weird time for Muslim people because we tend to overeat,” says Khatun, who struggled with depression and eating disorders throughout her twenties. “Everyone starves for 20 hours, then they see food and they go over-the-top, which prevents them from praying later on and doing a better fast the next day. They’re full of headaches.”

a woman sitting at a table: The Newham-born boxer turned personal trainer is the founder of Fitness Reborn © Provided by Independent Digital News & Media Limited The Newham-born boxer turned personal trainer is the founder of Fitness Reborn

The key, she says, is to treat exercise like food or water and fit it into the six-hour period after dark. “If I don’t train, it’s like taking away water and food for survival,” says Khatun. “Just as we need air to breathe, we need food to survive and water to replenish us, the body also needs exercise” — you just have to be smart about it.

Rather than the normal hour she spends in the gym, Ramadan workouts are just 20 minutes because the body is tired. Khatun explains: “It’s about taking the intensity down, lowering it, and getting maximum output in the shortest time.”

She mixes up her Facebook Live workout every night and regularly posts videos on Instagram, whether it’s sprints, HIIT or Tabata (eight rounds of exercises in 20-second intervals).

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Even if you only have time for five minutes “that’s enough”, Khatun insists — burpees, high knees and squat jumps are her wonder moves.

Timing is crucial. Training while fasting increases risk of injury so schedule your gym session after dark and, importantly, after eating. She recommends slow-release energy foods — yesterday, Khatun had a “proper Christmas roast chicken dinner” and the day before it was fish with couscous and potatoes, plus “lots of porridge”.

“Eat the protein first so the muscle clenches, and eat slowly so you don’t get bloated,” then snack throughout the six hours before a final meal at the end.

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Khatun swears by supplements to keep her energy up — cod liver oil, vitamin D3, multivitamins and zinc are her go-tos — and recommends drinking at least two litres of water over the six hours. “Put some Himalayan salt and lemon in so the organs absorb it and you don’t have to keep running to the toilet,” she says.

For Khatun, it’s just as much about mental as physical health. Growing up she “hated” herself — “I was very introvert, I became obsessed with myself, and never felt good unless someone gave me a compliment” — and “resented” her religion because “there was so much restriction in it”.

Discovering the endorphin rush she found from exercise was “the missing piece of the puzzle”, particularly over fasting periods because “the emotions are heightened”.

It’s a common transformation she sees among clients — who are predominantly Muslim women based here in the city. She also has 11,000 followers on Instagram “Generally in the South Asian community we don’t encourage fitness and exercise — we’re seen as living within a linear narrative of going to college, going to uni, coming out, having children, being a wife, having a great job,” says Khatun.

“If you look at the Asian community now, we have the highest increase in diabetes, we have the highest increase in heart- related issues — because we don’t exercise.”

An important reason for posting her videos is “representation”: for Muslim women to see someone exercising who looks like them, says Khatun. “We don’t see South Asians in the mainstream media — that’s why I feel like it’s my responsibility to push it and say, ‘You can train’.”

Healthy sporty woman wearing hijab jogging outdoors in the city. Islamic woman running early in the morning. Healthy sporty woman wearing hijab jogging outdoors in the city. Islamic woman running early in the morning.

Khatun now speaks in schools encouraging students from South Asian backgrounds to take up physical education, and she was crowned Sportswoman of the Year at last year’s Baton Awards celebrating BAME women.

“Representation makes a huge difference,” she adds. “There’s a whole section of our community that’s struggling with mental health or eating disorders but we never speak about it. When I speak to my Caucasian friends they’ll be like: ‘Oh that’s normal, I talk to my parents about it all the time. They help me go to therapy’. But we don’t get taught all of this. Fasting is hard and your body is the one thing that’s taking you through it. It’s our responsibility to look after it.”

MSN UK are Empowering Happiness for mental health awareness month. Find out more about our campaign and the charities working to stop people falling into crisis here.

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