This January, we are publishing a series of articles about getting active for our physical and mental health, as part of our ‘Fil Harakah Barakah’ campaign. The name comes from an Arab saying which means ‘There are blessings in movement’. We interviewed Zafar who runs Zoom exercise classes for men. Let’s see what he has to say about getting active during lockdown!
How did you start doing these classes?
'I've been trying to keep fit and healthy for the last six or seven years. And then I decided I needed to do something with that'. Zafar would encourage his friends to get active and healthy too, and they told him he seemed like a teacher or a trainer. 'So I started doing these classes. Since the lockdown started in March, I've been doing Zoom classes - because I felt that people were at home not doing anything'.
At the moment, Zafar's is running three classes, all of them for men. His classes are aimed at men over the age of 40, though younger men join in as well.
What's the main purpose of these classes?
Zafar's main aim is to improve the overall health of his class. 'It's not just about wanting to lose weight or gain strength - it's mostly to keep fit and healthy'.
Studies have shown that people from the Asian community are less likely to be physically active:
There's strong evidence that people who are active have a lower risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, some cancers, depression and dementia [NHS]. The NHS recommends that older people exercise for 150 minutes every week in order to see these benefits.
Zafar is encouraging men over 40 in the BAME community to take care of their health as they grow older and gain weight. He has incorporated stretching, balancing and Kegel exercises into his classes - to help his class improve their muscle strength and flexibility.
Some of the people in his class were reluctant to begin this exercise routine at first. 'I actually had to - not force them, but encourage them to come on, because they'd never done exercise before. When I talked about hip-opening exercises and things like that - I said, "Just come and watch this, and see if you want to join the group and the classes". And after a few sessions, they started enjoying it. Some people are uncertain, they think, "When you talk about stretches, what do you mean?" They see moves in their head - "What's he going to do, make us stand on one leg, hands pointing in the air - what's he going to do?" But as you get older, you start losing your balance, you start losing your eyesight - so it's very important for the older guys to learn about the balancing and stretching exercises'.
By running fitness classes for older men, Zafar is benefitting the overall community, helping people stay healthier for longer and maintain their independence.
What is the top health concern of the men in your classes?
Many of the men in Zafar's class are concerned that their sedentary lifestyle is impacting their health even more in lockdown. 'When you're in the office you've got the chair, you've got your nice desk - but when you're at home you might be working on the sofa with a laptop in front of you. They were getting back ache and neck ache, and they wanted to address these issues. If you're working 6 or 7 hours on the sofa or a kitchen table, then it's going to be difficult, isn't it?'
Our sedentary lifestyles were not healthy before lockdown, but we're sitting down even more now that we're not commuting and limiting our time outside the house. Yet these facts and figures show we should be making exercising a priority.
As the Prophet (saw) said, 'Indeed, your own self has rights over you' [Abu Dawud] - our bodies are an amanah (trust) from Allah, and we should make an active effort to counteract the negative impact of a sedentary lifestyle.
Are your classes having an impact on mental health?
'I think definitely mental health has been helped. Because men don't take mental health seriously. They tend to bottle it up - including me as well - we won't talk to anybody'.
Our mental health is also an amanah (trust) from Allah, yet we often don't realise how much our lifestyle impacts it - more so now that we are in lockdown.
'Because of lockdown, people who haven't been able to look after themselves mentally are suffering more', Zafar says. 'But in the classes, we're talking about different things, we're having a laugh, we're having a conversation. We might only be helping in a small way. But it's about creating an environment for them to come and enjoy themselves. It's a social thing as well'.
Taking care of our mental health is rewardable in itself. But there is also the added benefit of taking care of the people around us too. 'When you feel mentally healthy - it's going to have an effect on the family', Zafar says. 'When you feel low, your children will see you, your partner will see you - and it will affect them'.
Mental illness and poor mental health have a ripple effect on those around us. Thus, taking the time to exercise regularly and address our stresses is part of our responsibility towards the people around us.
Zafar believes it is especially important for the Asian community to realise the connection between mental, physical and spiritual health. 'Especially in the Asian community, there's no definition of mild depression, or being anxious or stressed. But it's about out emotional wellbeing, isn't it? And when you exercise, you feel a lot better. You feel calmer, your blood has been circulating. And when we're emotionally good then we can tackle emotional stresses that we have in life'.
Do you advise your class about other ways to get healthy, apart from exercise?
'Yes, because I'm training to be a nutritionist, I'm training to tell them about what diets they should have, and what's best to avoid'. His class often recommend traditional foods that nourish you in the winter. 'They talk about Panjeeri, which is high in cholesterol and sugar. I recommend foods that help your body during the winter. Warm foods that will generate warmth in your body'.
Often, even a simple change in diet can have a lasting impact. 'My general recommendation is not to eat too late and drink plenty of water', Zafar says.
Is there anything you're looking forward to after lockdown?
We had this interview in December, so Zafar was looking forward to lockdown opening up in January. Unfortunately, that didn't happen, but when the lockdowns finally end, he's looking forward to walking as a group.
'Just a week before lockdown, Humera and I did some training around leading walks. I want to start taking groups to walk in the local park, to start with. Once lockdown opens, hopefully next year. I enjoy the outside, and there are more things to discover in the countryside and even in your local parks. So that's definitely my next step'.
We hope this article encouraged you to get active during lockdown! We'd like to thank Zafar for his insights. Get in touch with Zafar at 07522466359.
Do share this article with friends and family, as the Prophet (saw) said, ‘Whoever guides someone to goodness will have a reward like one who did it’. [Muslim]