Welcome to part 5 in the Living a better life series, all about physical well-being.
Our physical well-being might be one of the most obvious states that we maintain... or neglect. When we get physically unwell, it's arguably always more visible than if we are spiritually or mentally unwell. Yet we still enjoy a binge of junk food, stay up too late and do little exercise, even though we know full well how bad this can be for us. Let's explore some basics for some motivation to do better, and be kinder to ourselves and our bodies this year.
1. Improve your eating habits
Unhealthy diet is a major risk factor for disease, and improving eating habits can ward off illnesses. According to the World Health Organisation:
An unhealthy diet is one of the major risk factors for a range of chronic diseases, including cardiovascular diseases, cancer, diabetes and other conditions linked to obesity. Specific recommendations for a healthy diet include: eating more fruit, vegetables, legumes, nuts and grains; cutting down on salt, sugar and fats. It is also advisable to choose unsaturated fats, instead of saturated fats and towards the elimination of trans-fatty acids.
We don't do ourselves any favours eating too much, especially if we're eating too many unhealthy foods. Allah warned us about overeating in the Qur'an:
Children of Adam, dress well whenever you are at worship, and eat and drink [as We have permitted] but do not be extravagant: God does not like extravagant people. (Qur'an 7:31)
What about the benefits of fasting? Fasting as per the sunnah means fasting from dawn, (the time fajr comes in, most commonly acknowledged as when the sun reaches 18 degrees below the horizon) until sunset. Different types of intermittent fasting are popular in wider society such as the 5:2 diet; fasting 2 days a week, and the 16/8 diet; fasting for 16 hours a day. We spoke about the spiritual benefits of fasting and importance of eating less from an Islamic perspective in Part 2, read that here.
2. Drink more water
Drinking more water helps to avoid over eating and is good for our skin, in avoiding headaches and for generally better health. During Ramadan I regularly drink so much more water than usual because I'm conscious that I'll be fasting the next day, but quickly loose the habit as soon as the luxury comes back! But drinking adequate amounts of water daily shouldn't be something that happens only once a year. Drink more water - because you know you should!
3. Sleep earlier
"The Messenger of Allah(ﷺ) found me sleeping in the masjid on my stomach. He nudged me with his foot and said: 'Why are you sleeping like this? This is a kind of sleep that Allah dislikes,' or 'that Allah hates.'" (Sahih Sunan Ibn Majah)
Poor mood, memory and greater risk taking can be linked to lack of sleep. Although every individual will require different amounts of sleep to be healthy, it's recommended that adults get around 7-9 hours a night. If we're staying up to pray isha, and waking up to pray fajr, plus maybe praying tahajjud in the night this might be a difficult number to achieve - especially if you struggle to go back to sleep quickly.
Interestingly, this article describes segmented sleep as the most natural and beneficial pattern, in line with the idea of waking for tahajjud regularly:
Segmented sleep is considered the most natural sleeping pattern according to common scientific literature. It consists of two sleeps, both at night time, first going to sleep at dusk, and secondly waking at dawn, synchronized with the local lighting patterns, sunrise and sunset. If a person changes their sleep from monophasic sleep to segmented, then after some acclimatization they will experience a change in hormone regulation, energy metabolism and a profound mental clarity throughout the day, and the middle of the night. A Segmented Sleeper typically sleeps between 6 and 8 hours a day.
The Prophet (ﷺ) said: Any person who offers prayer at night regularly but (on a certain night) he is dominated by sleep will be given the reward of praying. His sleep will be almsgiving. (Sahih Al-Albani)
4. Exercise, a bit
If you don't already incorporate exercise into your life, start now. Even if it means walking a more frequently instead of using transport (plus use this time for dhikr). Walking in nature is said to be particularly beneficial.
We often take for granted the breaths we take; over 23,000 of them each day. While most of us can hold our breath for around a minute or less, the world record stands at 22 minutes with free diver Tom Sietas. This record is amazing - Alhamdulillah - our bodies can do extremely extraordinary things. This achievement is particularly significant when we consider what's actually going on in the body to make this happen. Essentially, free divers and other breath-related extraordinaire's accomplishments require extensive training in order to compress oxygen in their lungs so that they can go longer without taking a new breath.
I'm not going to suggest that we should all undertake training as a free diver or aim to learn these techniques exactly, but what we can learn from these techniques is the immediate and long-term benefits of breathing; truly breathing.
The trick is to breathe so your belly raises first, then your chest.
The benefits of deep 'belly' breathing range from detoxification to weight regulation, read more about the benefits of breathing properly here.
1. Identity one known bad eating habit, and slowly work to eliminate it.
2. Monitor how much you sleep, and increase the times until you can recognise how much sleep you need. Now adjust your sleep schedule accordingly, as best as you can.
3. Practice deep breathing in the mornings and see how it affects you.