Ayesha Akhtar is a community health educator for both the Epilepsy Foundation of Greater Chicago as well as HEART Women + Girls, which she co-founded. Her fitness routine involves running an average of 30-35 miles/week, strength training with her sons 2-3 times/week, and spinning once a week. Abs are made in the kitchen so she eats lean, clean + green.

We weren’t put on this earth to be slaves to food; we were put on this earth to be slaves to God, is the philosophy New Yorker Zainab Ismail lives by. As her feet pound the running track, come rain or snow, her heart finds solace in dhikr (reciting supplications). Chalk it up to a passion for fitness, motivation, runner’s high or all of the above but “there really is no excuse for letting go of your fitness goals when temperatures drop. From activities at a large sports complex in town to a game of basketball at the mosque, there is always something to do — if you choose,” says Ismail, who is the owner of Fitness Essentials, LLC and Weight Loss Director with Nadoona (www.nadoona.com). Given Ismail’s 20 years of experience as a movement therapist, personal trainer and nutritional coach, when she offers advice you take notes.

If the weather is really bad, Ismail recommends the Jillian Michaels DVD series for beginners and P90X for more advanced workouts. And with smart phone apps, you can get fitness videos at your fingertips — literally. The Wii Fit and XBOX Kinect games can also serve as “undercover workouts” and get the whole family off the couch.

“It may sound corny but shoveling snow (or making snowmen) can also be a workout. Corral the kids by making teams where everyone has to shovel the snow into their fort before a snow ball fight,” says Mubarakah Ibrahim, Founder of New Haven, Connecticut based Fit Muslimah (www.fitmuslimah.com) and Balance Fitness, and invitee to the 2012 White House Iftaar. Besides maintaining the Fit Muslimah online community, Ibrahim leads its international health and fitness retreats for women to learn about nutritional information, fitness education and emotional wellbeing. The most recent one was held in Bermuda.

Numerous studies prove that exercise promotes the production of serotonin, which reduces depression. Yes, exercise doesn’t just have physical benefits — it makes for a happy family too. Still others, like Sadam Ali and Kulsoom Abdullah, have so much fun staying fit that they are in it to win it.


Playing Well

New Yorker Sadam Ali started boxing when he was eight years old. 15 years later, he is still in love with the sport. In 2008, Ali became the first Arab American to participate in the Olympics in Beijing. Winter does not encroach on his two-hours-a-day, 365-days-of-the-year training schedule. “If you make staying fit a priority, you will make the time for it,” Ali said. “People doubted me, but that made me work harder. Train well, stay focused and pray hard.”

Atlanta based Kulsoom Abdullah (www.liftingcovered.com), like Sadam Ali, is an embodiment of determination. Slender and petite, she is the first Pakistani-American woman to represent Pakistan at the 2011 World Weightlifting Championships and the 2012 Asian Weightlifting Champions. A computer engineer with a doctoral degree, she is also a fan of Cross fitting, a core strength and conditioning program.

“Getting started is usually the hardest, but once you get into a routine or habit, it is not as challenging,” she says. “Whether it is teenagers or adults, I would say find something you like and you will be motivated. Try different things, find friends or convince friends, find a group for more motivation and, of course, try competitions for fun even if you think you are not good enough.”

Abdullah, who adheres to the Islamic dress-code, has earned many laurels including an invitation to deliver remarks succeeding those by Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, at the U.S. State Department’s Eid-ul-Fitr reception in 2011. “Never feel intimated or embarrassed by how you dress. Most people do not care. If they do, ignore them. Just focus on yourself, your health and the activity you want to do,” says Abdullah.

Abdullah realizes that it can be tough for women who prefer a non co-ed environment, given the paucity of women-only facilities. If you live by a university, she recommends working with the Muslim Students Association (MSA) on campus to explore scheduling time for exclusive women’s access to university gyms. Alternatively, she suggests that women occasionally attend a co-ed gym for training and guidance and work out at home the rest of the time. There always being risk of injury when starting an exercise regime, she suggests having a personal trainer do home visits. “It is harder by yourself without guidance and motivation, but it is better than nothing and you can still get a good workout.”


Eating Well

Ammiel Mateen, organizer of the 3 Month Challenge (www.facebook.com/3MonthChallenge; http://exhalewithammiel.wordpress.com), is committed to “kale because it can be consumed cooked or raw. I typically eat it raw in a salad, which consists of kale, apples, sunflower seeds, red onions, blue cheese and a vinaigrette dressing. When cooking with kale, I lightly sauté it in olive oil, onion, garlic and light salt. I’ve come to appreciate quinoa so much that I’ve just about completely replaced brown rice with it. There are recipes (for Quinoa) that will allow for it to be eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner.”

Like Mateen, Tamkeenat Syed is also a runner. “I need efficient fuel,” says Syed, a Medical Science student at Dominican University in River Forest, IL. “Cutting out the amount of meat and dairy I consume has done wonders for my physical well being. Although my family is big on eating red meat, now we order lean chicken ground meat instead of ground beef. I have also gotten into arguments with owners of halal meat stores about the meaning behind zabihah. To me, zabihah entails not only the method of slaughter but also the way in which the animal has been raised. (See related story: Does It Have to Be Organic?).The only type of meat I want my family and I to consume is from an animal that has been given a just, free and happy life.”

Abdullah concurs. “I prefer grass fed zabihah meat. I make a compromise in vitamin D with bovine gelatin. As a woman who covers, I do not get enough vitamin D without it and blood test results show it. Vitamin D3 and fish oil (in liquid form) are my main supplements.”

Eating at home, around a table, is almost always healthier; it boosts emotional wellness too. It is especially crucial to provide children with the right nutrition while parents are still doing the groceries so good eating habits continue when they fly solo. It’s great if parents instill good dietary habits and don’t use candy and food as rewards. Sugar is addicting and if you are not used to it, you will be accustomed to doing without it.


Drinking Well

Tall glasses of ice cold lemonade conjure images of hot summer days. However, your body needs just as much water in the winter. Extra layers of clothing plus central heating can cause dehydration. Instead of the eight-glasses-a-day mantra, Ibrahim suggests we drink half our body weight in ounces of water every day. So if you weigh 140 pounds, you should aim for 70 ounces of water daily. Kids playing a sport for more than an hour, should have an electrolyte-enhanced drink like Gatorade along with water through out.

For Mateen, it’s “plain ol’ water at room temperature and coconut water. Water just makes the body function a lot better through the day,” she says. “You’re able to eliminate toxins and keep the stomach full, which sometimes prevents eating unnecessarily.” Coconut water has been a part of her diet for the past five years. “I began drinking it after running in extremely hot weather of 85 degrees and above. I really does hydrate my body and I’m not exhausted later in the day. Coconut water is low calorie, fat-free, has minerals our bodies needs and has a good amount of potassium (just as much as bananas), which is known to decrease the chances of muscle cramps.”

“When I replaced diet pop with water, I felt physically better and my fitness threshold increased as well. I started running faster, I felt less groggy, and I also lost a few pounds!” says Syed. “I read an article that talked about the biochemical ways of aspartame and how it mimics sugar, but doesn’t bind to the sugar receptor. Since the body doesn’t get the sugar it thinks it’s getting, it craves other things instead — so we snack more to fulfill our cravings. Chips and pop go hand-in-hand for a reason. I now choose almond milk over soy and dairy milk. I have also started drinking probiotic drinks such as Kombucha — it is a tea with bacteria that is found in yogurt. If there’s biryani being eaten for a family gathering, I always have a Kombucha in hand,” she laughs.

“The Prophet Mohammed* said to fill our stomachs with 1/3 food, 1/3 water, and 1/3 air — this is the biggest ‘diet secret’ to land on earth, the best formula for maintaining one’s health,” says Syed. “If we are able to control ourselves and adhere to this hadith (saying of the Prophet), we will be in good health, inshAllah (God willing).

As the renowned scholar, Imam Ash-Shafi’ said, “I have not filled myself in sixteen years because filling oneself makes the body heavy, removes clear understanding, induces sleep and makes one weak for worship.” Here’s hoping for well-rounded winter habits that will give us a head start in the New Year.

Note: Information presented in this article should not replace a consultation with your physician before you begin any exercise regimen.

*The words peace be upon him are recited upon every mention of a Prophet’s name.

About the Writers: Kiran Ansari is a freelance writer with bylines in 30+ publication. She is also founder and CEO of Up A Notch, specializing in personalized party favors and gifts. Reach her at kiran@kiranansari.com.

Mohammed Ayub Khan is a Toronto, Canada based researcher specializing in food industry and consumer trends.