It’s hard to do justice to this particular topic in a single post, but it’s an issue that needs to be highlighted. The long and short of it is that you can help improve your weak pelvic floor with correct exercise technique. So, if a weak pelvic floor is stopping you from exercising or enjoying life, please read on.
A weak pelvic floor can severely impact a woman’s quality of life. According to the recently published Annual Report (The Health of the 51%: Women) by the Chief Medical Officer over 5 million women in the UK have incontinence issues and up to half of those women affected are either moderately or greatly bothered by it.
We tend to think of pelvic floor exercises as something you “do” in the period just after you’ve had a baby and then forget about as your daily life takes over. However, it’s a fact that all women – whatever their life stage – can benefit from practising pelvic floor exercises regularly, whether or not they’ve had children, and no matter what age their children are now. It shouldn’t be taken as a given that any urinary or faecal incontinence or prolapse is just your “lot” to live with and that you now need to avoid exercise to prevent leakage. There is plenty you can do to improve upon your situation through conservative means (i.e. non-invasive, non-medical / non-surgical). Pelvic floor exercises can also be used as a preventative measure too, not just during rehabilitation.
How to restore pelvic floor and core function
Depending on your starting point, you need to begin by re-establishing the brain-pelvic floor connection. You need to learn how to get the two talking to each other again and know what it feels like to engage your pelvic floor (which, incidentally, comprise several muscle groups, rather than a single muscle).
This can be achieved using a number of cueing signals or visualisations. It’s about finding out what works best for you. Initially you may find that there feels like there is very little connection. That’s OK. You need to get brain and pelvic floor talking again.
The pelvic floor does not function in isolation. It forms part of your core, alongside you diaphragm, abdominal wall, as well as your lumbar and thoracic muscles, plus connective tissues. While simple kegel exercises may be useful to begin with, they don’t prepare you – or your pelvic floor – for everyday life. You’ve got to be able to pick up, reach out, twist and lift too.
Once you’ve learned to reconnect with your pelvic floor, therefore, you then need to move on to learn how to integrate your breath and core correctly. As part of your exercise regime, you should look to introduce functional exercise patterns (i.e. the ones that mimic your daily life movements) alongside correct breathing and core technique. Your pelvic floor loves movement. So integrating pelvic floor exercises with correct technique (together with the rest of your core) into squat and lunge patterns will benefit you greatly. However, selection of the correct exercises to suit you is important. For example, depending on the type of prolapse you have, certain exercises will be more beneficial for you more than others. Professional advice should therefore be sought first.
At first, all this may seem a little unusual, but stick with it, and over time it will eventually become second nature. Holding your breath upon exertion while exercising (Valsalva breathing), is a definite no. You’re simply placing your weak pelvic floor and core under increased pressure and it’s counterproductive. Make no mistake, this is the “quiet” work being done first – no heavy lifting or jumping around here – to allow your pelvic floor and core function to improve and progress.
Use of this correct technique is not confined solely to the gym floor, but is something to carry over into your everyday life activities, such as emptying the washing from the washing machine into the basket , then standing up (not fun, but we all do it). Or, picking up a car seat and turning to secure it in the car.
Depending on your fitness and health goals, you don’t need to lift heavy. However, once you have restored your pelvic floor to optimal function, you can then look to introduce more weight and / or movement into your exercise routine.
To highlight the recommendations of the Chief Medical Officer’s report, conservative therapy such as the strategy outlined here should be viewed as a first port of call to help improve pelvic floor function. Invasive treatments, such as oestrogen therapy or surgery, should be considered as a last resort.
Wendy Goldthorp is a level 3 personal trainer and is qualified to instruct both pregnancy and post natal exercise. She is also a Third Age Woman instructor. As part of her South Devon practice, Wendy works with and coaches clients to help heal their diastasis and to improve their pelvic floor and core function.