Follow the Sunna of the Prophet (s): How Exercise Benefits the Brain and Overall Performance

Posted on December 1, 2011


Rafik Beekun

Working at sedentary jobs is contributing to a whole list of health problems including obesity.
To avoid becoming overweight and falling victim to all the physical issues associated with obesity, Muslim workers need to adhere to the Sunnah of the Prophet (s) regarding exercise. in addition, exercise has been shown to benefit the brain and overall performance.

The Prophet (s) and Exercise

Partly based on articles by Aisha Stacey and Dr. Yunus

The Prophet (s) was a very physically fit person.  Three hadiths substantiate this:

(1) in a hadith reported in Sahih Bukhari, Aisha (ra) stated that, “I raced with the Prophet and I beat him. Later, when I had put on some weight, we raced again and he won. Then he said, ” This cancels that (referring to the previous race.” ”

(2) The Prophet (s) once wrestled with a man called Rukhanah who was well known for his strength, throwing him down more than once.  (reported by Abu Dawud.

(3)  He himself used to walk at a fast pace and those who walked with him had difficulty keeping with him.  In a hadith reported by Ali (r) in Tirmidhi, he described Muhammad’s (s) vigorous way of walking: “When he walked, because of the speed and force of the legs, it seemed as if he was descending from a high place.”  Abu Huraira in another hadith in Tirmidhi narrated that, “I did not see anyone walk faster than him, as is the earth folded for him. A few moments ago he would be here, and then there. We found it difficult to keep pace when we walked with him and he walked at his normal pace.”

As indicated by Shamim Aleem in his book, “Prophet Muhammad(s) and His Family: A Sociological Perspective”, Muhammad (s) had an aptitude for archery. Uqbah Bin Âmir (r) also narrates that he heard Rasulullah (s) saying: “Whoever gives up archery after having learned it, is not of us…”(Reported by Sahih Muslim)

In Sahih Muslim,  Prophet Muhammad (s) said a strong believer was better than a weak believer. The Prophet (s) said,  “The strong believer is better and more beloved to Allah than the weak believer, while there is good in both.”  He was talking in terms of faith and character but also indicating that physical strength i.e. optimum health and fitness were desirable, providing God gave us the ways and means of attaining such strength.  Islam’s holistic approach to life and thus health offers us the ability to remain strong and healthy.  If God decrees that illness or injury are to be part of  our lives then Islam provides us  with the ways and means of accepting  and even being grateful for the tests and trials that envelope us. […] .  This may be why he encouraged physical exercise.  In a hadith narrated from Hazrat Ibn Umar (R.A) in which our beloved Prophet said  ”Teach your children swimming, archery and horse riding”.   In Sahih Muslim, the Prophet (s) said,   “Practice archery and horseback riding.”   The Prophet  (s) said “Any action without the remembrance of Allah is either a diversion or heedlessness except four acts: walking from target to target (during archery practice), training a horse, . . . , and learning to swim.”  (Reported by al Tabarani on good authority)   Finally, the Prophet (s) also allowed spear practice in the masjid, and also acted as a barrier for his wife Aisha (rah) when she was watching the Abyssinians practice sports.

Believers in Islam must take care of their spiritual, emotional and physical health.  Our bodies, the most complex of machines, are given to us by God as a trust.  They should not be abused or neglected but maintained in good order.  As previously discussed, diet and nutrition play a big part in maintaining the best possible health, so does a lifestyle incorporating exercise.  Islam lays emphasis on a simple diet combined with physical exercise. […]

Prophet Muhammad advised his followers, to work, to be energetic, and to start their day early, all of which are conditions for a healthy body.  He said “O God, make the early morning hours blessed for my nation.” [Imam Ahmad]  Obesity or an inadequate diet, laziness and weakness are all afflictions for which we will be called to account.  Even though preventing illness or injury is often out of our control, there are many conditions brought on or made worse by our own lack of attention to diet and fitness.  Prophet Muhammad, may Allah praise him, said, “Any action without the remembrance of God is either a diversion or heedlessness excepting four acts: Walking from target to target [during archery practice], training a horse, playing with one’s family, and learning to swim.”[At Tabarani] […]

In a narration recorded by Imam Bukhari (a scholar who compiled Prophetic Traditions) it states that “The Prophet passed by some people from the tribe ofAslam while they were competing in archery (in the market).  He said to them,‘Shoot children of Ishmael (Prophet) your father was a skilled marksman.  Shoot and I am with so and so.’  One of the two teams therein stopped shooting.  The Prophet asked, ‘why do not you shoot?’  They answered, ‘How could we shoot while you are with them (the other team).  He then said, ‘Shoot and I am with you all.”

For more on exercise from an Islamic perspective,  please view the following slideshare presentation by Dr. Yunus

Finally, an interesting article in the Annals of Saudi Medicine assesses the benefits of salat (prayer) in terms of its connection to physical exercise. Please click here to read this article. Another slideshare presentation details the benefits of the physical movements involved in salat or prayer. Please click here to watch it.

One last article that is a must read on the topic of physical exercise in Islam is by Dr. Omar Kasule, M.D.

Physical Activity and Exercise: An Islamic Perspective

Dr. Omar Kasule, M.D. MB ChB (MUK), MPH (Harvard), DrPH (Harvard) Professor of Epidemiology and Islamic Medicine Institute of Medicine Universiti Brunei and Visiting Professor of Epidemiology Universiti Malaya.


The paper defines physical activity and explains its physiological, health, social, and religious benefits. It then describes Islamic guidelines for various types of physical activity such as walking, running, sitting, and standing as well as Islamic guidelines on physical sports.


Physical activity is any physical movement involving the musculo-skeletal system. Physical activity is a type of physical activity that is undertaken for the specific purpose of improving fitness, promotion of health, or prevention of disease.


Being physically active has many religious and social benefits. The physically active have the strength to undertake physical acts of ‘ibadat like salat or hajj. They have the energy to undertake work to be economically productive and thus support themselves and their community. The physically active are able to travel and engage in social activities such as visiting relatives, visiting the sick, and participating in social activities. All these have social and psychological benefits that would not be achieved in the absence of physical fitness.

Physical activity while doing useful work

In the modern technological society, physical exercise is undertaken as an end in itself with the result that most activities benefit the individual physiologically and in health promotion but have no contribution to society. We need to change the concept of exercise to be able to accrue maximum advantage. This can be achieved if people exercise while doing some socially beneficial work. This will be an appropriate return to the start of human history when people were active physically in hunting, gathering, and agriculture that were direct social benefits.

Legal rulings on physical activity

Physical activity is mustahabb or manduub for its physiological and health benefits. It is waajib when it is required as part of disease treatment. It is also mustahabb as a recreation. Participative sports are preferred over spectator sports. Males and females should be separated in sports activities. Sports involving show of cruelty, high risk for participants or spectators, or gambling are either haram or makruuh.


Types of walking:

Bipedal walking of humans has enabled humans build a sophisticated civilization. The Qur’an has mentioned walking in various instances: walking on earth, mashyu ‘ala al ardh[1], walking in the earth, mashyu fi al ardh[2], walking in the markets, mashyu fi al aswaaq[3], and walking in homes, mashyu fi al masaakin[4]. Allah made the roads[5] to enable humans work in comfort. He also provided landmarks for them to know the way and to know the direction of the road. The road is not always easy and Allah in His mercy made hajj obligatory only for those who have the ability to travel, istitaa’at al sabiil[6]. It is not permitted to travel in order to visit mashahid and qubuur. It is not permitted to make a specific travel to visit any mosque except the three mosques. Tourism without any purpose is forbidden, al siyaahat fi al ardh biduun gharadh shara’e manhiyu ‘anhu. Walking may take the form of jogging, hiking, mountaineering, competitive speed running.

Purposes of walking

Humans unlike animals should not walk and wander aimlessly. Walking can be for any of the following worthy purposes: work and employment, ‘ibadat, seeking knowledge, physical exercise for fitness, recreation or race walking, and social visits. Walking for purposes of ‘ibadat is the most worthy purpose. The reward is increased according to the number of steps taken to the masjid.

Etiquette of walking

The Prophet taught the importance of walking as a physical exercise by walking around Madina on foot even when he could have ridden a horse or a donkey. The prophet taught by example that the best manner is walking is taking quick and big steps, harwalat. The Prophet’s walk is described as form of jogging, harwala, as he was always in a hurry. He never walked lazily. He used to walk around Madina with his wives or his companions. He also used to walk in the open desert. He climbed mountains. One day in Madina he climbed Mount Uhud accompanied by Abubakar, Omar, and Othman. The mountain quaked and he calmed it saying ‘ithbut ya uhud. ‘alayka rasul al llaah wa siddiq wa shahiidaan. The Qur’an has described several etiquettes of walking: firm steps, thubuut al aqdaam[7], walking on feet[8], walking straight, mashyu sawiy[9], and walking with etiquette, mashy wa al adab[10]. The etiquette of walking is more emphasized for a woman: walking with shyness, mashyu bi hayaa[11] and not making audible attractive sound patterns with the feet.

[Please click here to read the whole article and to access the references listed in the above article by Professor Kasule.]

How Exercise Benefits the Brain


To learn more about how exercise affects the brain, scientists in Ireland recently asked a group of sedentary male college students to take part in a memory test followed by strenuous exercise.

First, the young men watched a rapid-fire lineup of photos with the faces and names of strangers. After a break, they tried to recall the names they had just seen as the photos again zipped across a computer screen.

Afterward, half of the students rode a stationary bicycle, at an increasingly strenuous pace, until they were exhausted. The others sat quietly for 30 minutes. Then both groups took the brain-teaser test again.

Notably, the exercised volunteers performed significantly better on the memory test than they had on their first try, while the volunteers who had rested did not improve.

Meanwhile, blood samples taken throughout the experiment offered a biological explanation for the boost in memory among the exercisers. Immediately after the strenuous activity, the cyclists had significantly higher levels of a protein known as brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF, which is known to promote the health of nerve cells. The men who had sat quietly showed no comparable change in BDNF levels.

For some time, scientists have believed that BDNF helps explain why mental functioning appears to improve with exercise. However, they haven’t fully understood which parts of the brain are affected or how those effects influence thinking. The Irish study suggests that the increases in BDNF prompted by exercise may play a particular role in improving memory and recall.

Other new studies have reached similar conclusions, among both people and animals, young and old. In one interesting experiment published last month, Brazilian scientists found that after sedentary elderly rats ran for a mere five minutes or so several days a week for five weeks, a cascade of biochemical processes ignited in the memory center of their brains, culminating in increased production of BDNF molecules there. The old, exercised animals then performed almost as well as much younger rats on rodent memory tests. [Please click here to read the whole article.]

Exercise your brain

CBS Nwws

Dr. Sanjay Gupta tells us how we can keep our memory as we age and even create new brain cells through mental and physical exercise.

Train your brain with exercise

WebMD Feature

“I like to say that exercise is like taking a little Prozac or a little Ritalin at just the right moment,” says John J. Ratey, MD, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of A User’s Guide to the Brain. “Exercise is really for the brain, not the body. It affects mood, vitality, alertness, and feelings of well-being.”

 Stephen C. Putnam, MEd, took up canoeing in a serious way to combat the symptoms ofadult ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). Then he wrote a book, titled Nature’s Ritalin for the Marathon Mind, about the benefits of exercise on troublesome brain disorders such as ADHD, a neurological/behavioral condition resulting in hyperactivity and the inability to focus on tasks. [..]

Putnam also points to some preliminary animal research that suggests that exercise can cause new stem cells to grow, refreshing the brain and other body parts. According to Ratey, exercise also stimulates nerve growth factors. “I call it Miracle-Gro for the brain,” he says.

How Exercise Trains the Brain

Christin Anderson, MS, wellness and fitness coordinator of the University of San Francisco, explains that exercise affects many sites within the nervous system and sets off pleasure chemicals such as serotonin and dopamine that make us feel calm, happy, and euphoric.

In other words, if you don’t want to wait for those good feelings to come by accident (if they do), you can bring them on by exercising.

“When one exercises,” Anderson says, “you can think more clearly, perform better, and your morale is better. This is pure science — stimulate your nervous system and function at a higher level.” [Please click here to read more]

1 brain exercise for better mental concentration