Have you been doing your pelvic floor exercises? If you’re pregnant or have recently had a baby, it’s a question you’ll be familiar with. But, for a time-pressed woman, exercising an unseen muscle that you might never have previously given a moment’s thought to can feel like just another thing to cram into an already busy day – and all too easily, pelvic floor exercises get dropped off the ‘to-do’ list. Or it may be that you are religiously doing them, but you are experiencing the not-so-nice consequences of a pelvic floor under strain: uncomfortable little leaks.
Don’t be embarrassed
In the UK, one in three women suffer from urinary incontinence. Yet, despite the normality of this health issue, particularly among pregnant women or those who have recently given birth, we often feel far too embarrassed to approach a medical professional for help – let alone discuss it with our friends.
Louise, mum to Harvey, 5, and twins Phoebe and Oscar, 2, had two natural births. “My pelvic floor muscles were more damaged after the twins,” she says. “I found it degrading that I was struggling with incontinence and I wondered whether I’d be like this for the rest of my life. My greatest fear was that I would leak in public.”
But Stephanie Taylor, founder and managing director of Kegel8, a business specialising in pelvic health solutions, says we need not feel awkward. “Pelvic floor problems shouldn’t be shrouded in the old taboo of embarrassment or shame,” she says. Jenni Russell, pelvic floor conditioning expert and author of ‘Pelvic Floor Secrets‘ (filament, £15.99), agrees with her: “This is the most precious part of our body,” she says. “Why are we afraid to talk about it?”
Anna, mum to Rupert, 15 months, found it hard to remember to do her exercises during pregnancy and lacked motivation. “When I was pregnant, I kept reading that I needed to practise pelvic floor exercises, but I didn’t see why,” she says. Anna’s experience is common – UK medical professionals often tell pregnant women to exercise their pelvic floor, but fail to explain why exercising it is so important.
“The pelvic floor is an amazing muscle,” says consultant pelvic floor physiotherapist Kay Crotty. Located below the pelvis, it supports the uterus, bladder and bowel, as well as assisting in urinary and faecal continence, and sexual sensation. Anything that puts strain through the muscle – including pregnancy, birth, obesity, high-impact sports or simple ageing – can cause weakening of the pelvic floor.
“Many women experience stress incontinence during pregnancy and after delivery,” explains Kay. “This means that physical stress, such as coughing, sneezing or laughing, causes urinary leakage.” Others may suffer from urinary urgency and leak before there is time to get to the bathroom. Leakage from the back passage or reduced sexual sensation may also cause problems.
“These symptoms usually improve eight to 12 weeks after the birth,” says Kay. “Focused pelvic floor exercise during pregnancy and after delivery is valuable in both prevention and acceleration of improvement in all of these symptoms.”
Make it routine
So how can you ensure that you do these all-important exercises? Start with an app for your iPhone. ‘My Pelvic Floor Friend‘ (my PFF) is a free app that guides you through sets of exercises and can also be set up to give you reminders during your day. Olson’s Kegel trainer app will set you back just a couple of pounds and offers motivating options to make the exercises harder as you progress through the levels.
Providing that you’re not pregnant, you may also want to replace one of your daily routines with an activity that uses a pelvic floor exerciser, such as Kegel8’s weighted smart balls, which you can use while pottering around at home. Kegel8’s more advanced pelvic trainer assesses the strength of your pelvic squeezes using an inflatable probe and then guides you through a ten-minute exercise programme with a voice prompt. It’s perfect for use while you’re sitting feeding your baby, or watching tv.
A holistic appraoch
Consider your pelvic floor health as part of a holistic approach to exercise. There’s lots of help available. Try Pfilates – a form of Pilates that helps train your pelvic floor – created by gynaecologist Dr Bruce Crawford. Pfilates is suitable for women post- childbirth or surgery, and is available as a home exercise DVD. MuTu System’s eight-week DVD or online exercise programme is designed to flatten a post-baby tummy and strengthen the pelvic floor. It’s suitable for use during pregnancy and after birth.
Harley Street-based Jenni Russell offers one-to-one training, and tailors a six-week to three-month programme to each client; she regularly works with pregnant women and new mums. Kay Crotty, located in central London, offers a bespoke pre- and post-birth pelvic floor care package for expectant mums which includes ultrasound scanning of the pelvic floor.