You work out to get strong, to be fit—and yes, to look really good in that bodycon dress.
But there may be some core muscles you aren’t focusing on. Consider your pelvic floor, the thin layer of muscle that acts like a sling to support your bladder, uterus and rectum.
There’s actually a surprising link between pelvic floor weakness and exercising: It’s been found that up to 30 percent of athletes and other women who work out regularly can experience pelvic floor disorders, due to increased abdominal pressure related to high-impact sports. That number can go up to as high as 40 percent of Olympians and other elite female athletes.
Problems can run the gamut from incontinence to pelvic organ prolapse. And it’s happening in up to 20 percent of women athletes as young as high school age, who’ve never been pregnant or had other risk factors, other than exercising.
Wait! This Doesn’t Mean You Should Stop Exercising
If you’re an athlete and regularly pee your pants after sneezing or laughing, feel like you need to pee all the time, or just feel like it’s falling “down there,” this could be why.
But whether you’re already experienced a problem or are just an athlete who’s now nervous about working out, there’s one very easy way to help prevent or treat these disorders. “The biggest intervention we have that athletes can do on their own is pelvic floor muscle exercises, also known as Kegels,” said Dr. Jennifer Lanzer, a urogynecologist at Augusta University Health.
If you’re an athlete—or even if you’re not—adding Kegels to your daily routine helps keep those key pelvic floor muscles firm. Which ensures that as you age, you have a lower risk of pelvic floor disorders. Anyone who has had a child should also do Kegels regularly since the strain of childbirth can also weaken these muscles.
Here’s How You Can Start Kegeling
The great thing is that you can do Kegels anytime, anywhere, without anyone else being aware that you’re “working out.”
During Kegels, you’ll tighten your pelvic floor muscles, hold, then relax. You’ll want to start by holding for five seconds and relaxing for five seconds, then build up to a 10-second contraction followed by a 10-second rest. Aim for about 10 reps three times a day.
Not sure if you are tightening the right muscles? You can pinpoint your pelvic floor muscles by stopping your pee midstream. Feel that? Those are the muscles you should be working.
But—and this is a big one—don’t make a habit of stopping your urine while peeing because that can lead to more bladder problems, including urinary tract infections. If you’re still unsure, your OB/GYN can help you—just ask during your next appointment.
Often, the biggest problem women have is remembering to actually do their Kegels. “I recommend doing it while you’re brushing your teeth or washing dishes or when you stop at a red light,” said Lanzer. “By tagging it onto something else you do regularly, it triggers a reminder to do your Kegels.”
Need even more of a reason? Studies have shown that women who regularly strengthen their pelvic floor muscles through Kegels can improve symptoms of bladder problems or prolapse by up to 80 percent.
For women who need additional support, a tampon can help or your doctor can prescribe a pessary, a small device inserted into the vagina to help support the pelvic organs. For very serious problems, surgical management is an option too.
The Benefits of Exercise
On the flip side, it’s also important to point out that studies have also shown that pregnant women who maintained their muscle mass by weightlifting or doing other exercises actually had half the rate of urinary stress incontinence compared to pregnant women who didn’t work out.
It’s also worthwhile to note that studies indicate that it’s only certain types of high-impact or “bouncing” exercise that can increase your risk for pelvic floor weakness, such as “double-unders” or jumping rope, track and field, or gymnastics.
“Studies are very variable,” said Lanzer. “So just be aware of the risk. And if it becomes an issue, see your doctor and talk about it. Even if you already are having an issue, you don’t need to think, ‘I’m only 25 and I’m leaking on myself and there’s no help for me.’ It’s absolutely certain that there can be a vast improvement by doing targeted exercise to your pelvic floor.”