Stress Incontinence Exercise
If you experience involuntary urine leaks, it can be an incredible source of distress. But it’s worth knowing that you’re not alone.
Indeed, incontinence affects 200 million people worldwide (source). Of the 5 types of incontinence in women, stress urinary incontinence is the most common. Stress urinary incontinence (SUI) is variably estimated to affect between 4% and 35% of adult women.
While SUI happens to be the most common form of urinary incontinence among women, it’s notable that incontinence is not just a female issue. However, it is twice as common in women as it is in men and the main reasons for this are pregnancy, childbirth and menopause.
What Is Stress Urinary Incontinence?
Stress urinary incontinence occurs when the body is exerting and other muscles or muscle groups (in particular the pelvic muscles) become compromised or less effective at doing their job, which includes holding in pee.
If you’ve ever peed a little when you’ve:
- Been doing exercise
- Or having sexual intercourse
- While lifting something heavy or bending over
… those are symptoms of SUI.
Stress incontinence is caused when the pelvic floor muscles become weakened. This can happen due to aforementioned milestones in a woman’s life; like pregnancy, childbirth and menopause. But it can also happen due to:
- Certain surgical procedures, like hysterectomy
- Excessive straining from constipation or even chronic coughing
What Are the Pelvic Floor Muscles?
So, SUI is caused by weakened pelvic floor muscles. But what exactly are the pelvic floor muscles and how can you keep them strong?
Your pelvic floor is a group of muscles found in the base of your pelvis. They form a hammock shape that provides support for a number of organs. Indeed, the pelvic floor muscles do a very important job; they support the bladder, bowels and reproductive organs.
Can Pelvic Floor Exercises Help Stress Incontinence?
Because weakened pelvic floor muscles are one of the major causes of SUI, treatment recommendations often include pelvic floor exercises (also known as Kegel exercises or pelvic muscle exercises), which strengthen your pelvic floor.
Kegel exercises are like any other form of exercise; they need to be done habitually to see results. This means you have to make a daily commitment to doing your Kegels before they'll impact your bladder control. It may take 15 weeks of regularly doing these exercises to see an improvement in bladder control issues.
Indeed, many would say that whether you experience bladder control issues or not, making a ritual of practicing pelvic floor exercises is a good preventative measure for incontinence or involuntarily passing gas and overall women's health.
And while they don’t change the way you look, regular Kegels can even enhance your orgasms!
How Do You Strengthen Your Bladder Muscles?
Learning Kegel training can be tricky at first, so start slow and build up your practice.
Step 1: Identify the Right Muscles
The first step is to know which muscles you’re exercising. One trick to help you locate the right muscles is to stop urinating mid-stream. The muscles you use to do this are your pelvic floor muscles.
Become familiar with how it feels to tighten your pelvic muscles. (Important: You should not make a habit of stopping urinating in this manner, just do it once to help you understand the muscles that come into play).
Step 2: Breathe and Repeat the Kegels
Now that you have identified the right muscles, you can focus on your routine.
- Inhale through your nose. When you inhale, your pelvic floor will naturally relax.
- Now, contract your pelvic floor muscles as you start to exhale slowly.
- Hold the contraction for 3-6 seconds. You might feel the muscles start to tire. Work your way up to holding for 10 seconds.
- Relax for the same (or more) time you held your contraction. It’s important to relax between contractions.
- Repeat in sets of 10.
Step 3: Build Up the Frequency of Kegels
Over time, you’ll want to do one set of 10 Kegels, two or three times a day. Space out the timing so you give yourself a chance to recover and don’t rush the exercises, especially at the beginning. For continued benefits, make your Kegel exercises a permanent part of your daily routine.
Don’t be embarrassed to ask for medical advice if you’re confused or concerned whether you’re doing your pelvic floor exercises correctly, or if you continue to experience urine leaks.
If your muscles are very weak, or you’re recovering from a trauma, it can be truly difficult to locate the correct muscles. Your doctor or physical therapist can help you with your Kegel bladder training. They may use tools like vaginal cones or biofeedback to help you regain bladder control.
Can Other Forms of Exercise Help too?
All forms of exercise are good for your body. A healthy weight is one of the risk factors for urinary incontinence. Therefore, all exercises can help reduce your risk of urine leakages.
Walking, in particular, is an accessible, affordable and low impact exercise form that more people might take advantage of. It helps ease constipation and generally keep your system humming along. However, walking does not specifically target the pelvic floor muscles the way Kegel exercises do.
There are some yoga poses and floor exercises (e.g. The Bridge, Reclining Bound Angle Pose) that may also help strengthen the bladder and pelvic floor muscles, but it is still worth doing dedicated daily Kegel exercises to ensure you are strengthening this oft-overlooked body area.
Should I Seek Medical Advice?
Half of women who experience incontinence or urine leaks do not discuss it with their doctor. This could be because of embarrassment, but it could also be the result of a perception that incontinence is just a reality for women (especially women of a certain age).
We definitely advocate chatting with your doctor about everything that’s going on with your body. There is always a chance - even slim - that it could be a symptom of something more serious.
But more than that, your doctor is likely a better judge of what kind of incontinence you have. At the worst, they’ll confirm what you already think and you can start a discussion about treatment options. So what’s there to really fear?
While it’s likely Kegel exercises will be part of their treatment plan, depending on the severity of your case, they may also explore other treatment options. These may include:
- Fluid consumption moderation
- Bladder training
- Devices like a vaginal pessary or urethral insert
There are many treatment options for treating SUI and the right course of treatment for you will depend on the severity of your condition. This is something you and your healthcare provider will navigate together. Don’t let fear or embarrassment lead you to suffer in silence.
In the short-term, try leakproof underwear to help you manage incontinence day-to-day. While these will not cure incontinence, they will help you feel like you can carry on living, exercising, socializing etc. in the manner you did before without carrying a constant fear of “accidents”.