Everyone is always going on about your ‘pelvic floor’: ‘this exercise will work your pelvic floor’, ‘you need to strengthen your pelvic floor’, ‘if you don’t do your pelvic floor exercises you’re going to pee when you sneeze’. I mean that last one in particular has caught our attention but what actually is your pelvic floor muscles and why are we going to end up peeing ourselves? We talk to Professor Linda Cardozo, a professor of urogynaecology and consultant gynaecologist and spokesperson for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) to find out 5 things you need to know about your pelvic floor and how to manage it:
1. The pelvic floor muscles support the pelvic organs and control bladder and bowel functions. During penetrative sex, voluntary contractions of the pelvic floor muscles contribute to sexual sensation and arousal. The muscles also provide support for a growing baby during pregnancy.
2. As women age, their pelvic floor muscles weaken. This can be exacerbated by pregnancy and childbirth, especially vaginal delivery, as well as obesity, chronic constipation or any other activity that causes high impact on the pelvic floor muscles.
3. Weak pelvic floor muscles can cause problems such as urinary and anal incontinence and reduced sensitivity during sex. There is also an increased risk of pelvic organ prolapse, which is when one or more of the pelvic organs bulges into the vagina.
4. Doing regular pelvic floor exercises can help improve muscle tone, bladder and bowel control and sensitivity during sex. If women are pregnant, or planning to become pregnant, they should start doing pelvic floor exercises as soon as possible as this will reduce the risk of experiencing incontinence after childbirth.
5. To help protect their pelvic floor muscles, women should avoid excessive weight gain or any activity that causes high impact on the muscles such as jumping on a trampoline or weight training.
How to exercise the pelvic floor muscles
There are various different ways in which women can carry out pelvic floor exercises but the easiest is to sit or stand comfortably with knees slightly apart and then draw up the pelvic floor muscles as if trying to avoid passing urine or flatus. It is important not to tighten the stomach, buttock or thigh muscles during the exercises. To check that the correct muscles are being exercised, women can place a finger or thumb into the vagina and squeeze the pelvic floor muscles at the same time. They should feel a gentle squeeze as the muscles contract.
Women can build up the strength of their pelvic floor muscles by doing ten slow contractions and holding them for about 10 seconds each. The length of time can be increased gradually and the slow contractions can then be followed by a set of quick contractions. The whole process should be carried out three or four times a day. If women stop the exercises, they will lose tone and strength of their pelvic floor muscles.