How fit is your pelvic floor?

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  • It turns out a strong pelvic floor can make everything better – from back pain to your sex life…

    Words by Christina Quaine

    Have you ever been told to engage your pelvic floor in a Pilates class and had no idea what that actually means? You’re not alone. According to reports, 30 per cent of women are doing Kegel exercises (pelvic exercises devised by American gynaecologist Arnold Kegel in the 40s) incorrectly. ‘Your pelvic floor is a group of muscles extending from the pubic bone at the front of your body, through to the coccyx [your tailbone] at the back,’ explains Alison Wright, consultant gynaecologist and spokesperson for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. The muscles work almost like a hammock, supporting your organs as well as your bladder, uterus and bowel. If you can stop your wee mid-flow, that’s your PF working and, likewise, when you hold in wind at an inopportune moment (come on, we’ve all been there), that’s your pelvic floor, too.

    Bring it on

    A recent study published in the International Urogynaecology Journal found that women with strong pelvic floor muscles reported better orgasms and greater arousal than those with a weaker pelvic floor (where sensation and satisfaction may be decreased). If you’ve had children or are expecting, a separate study from Marmara University in Istanbul found that sexual arousal, lubrication and orgasm were higher in women who did PF exercises after childbirth than those who didn’t.

    Experts believe that stronger muscles mean increased sensitivity when you’re having sex. Tania Boler, founder of Elvie, a new fitness app which works your pelvic floor, says, ‘Ultimately, a strong pelvic floor means increased blood flow to this region, your muscles become toned and the end result is a heightened sense of pleasure.’

    Step up

    One of the main issues associated with a weak pelvic floor is urinary incontinence, particularly when laughing or coughing. It affects a third of women and, while it becomes more of a problem the older you get, taking preventative measures in your twenties and thirties is key. ‘Weight gain, prolonged coughing and straining due to constipation can all put pressure on your pelvic floor, causing it to weaken,’ explains Wright.

    Your likelihood of running into problems could also be genetic. A 2009 study found evidence for a gene that predisposes to pelvic-floor problems, such as stress urinary incontinence, while pregnancy and childbirth play a vital role, too. ‘The weight of the baby sits on your PF muscles, and this has an impact after childbirth, even if you have a caesarean,’ says women’s health physiotherapist (aka PF specialist) Louise Rahmanou. And, sadly, your super-healthy exercise routine could also affect your PF. ‘High-impact sports such as running, skipping and weight-lifting can cause the muscles to weaken,’ says Rahmanou.

    Step up 2

    You could use specialist products such as Elvie, or you can try this routine three times a day (so easy, you can do it in the Pret queue). ‘Squeeze and lift your pelvic floor for ten seconds,’ says Rahmanou. ‘It should feel like you’re stopping yourself doing a wee. You shouldn’t be squeezing your buttocks together, and you shouldn’t feel anything pushing down. Relax for four seconds to give the muscles a chance to recover, then repeat ten times. Next, do ten squeezes in quick succession. These are pulses that help your pelvic floor to kick in quickly when you laugh or cough.’

    Suffer from backache? That’s another reason to work on your pelvic floor. The muscles support your coccyx and when strengthened, they stop you slumping, taking pressure off the lower back.

    That said, ‘having a very tight, or hypertonic, pelvic floor can lead to chronic pain and problems with bladder emptying,’ says Rahmanou. ‘This can lead to incomplete bladder emptying which, in turn, causes recurring bladder infections.’

    So the upshot? It’s just as important to relax those muscles as tighten them.

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