Kegels may not have entered the mainstream until the 1990s but they were developed nearly 50 years earlier when an American gynecologist—of the same name—began prescribing them for urinary incontinence. And while we tend to associate Kegel exercises primarily with sex—thanks, Cosmo—the method, combined with other pelvic floor exercises, can be a blessing for your health. Here’s the lowdown on pelvic floor exercises—and why you should add them to your to-do list.
But first: what are pelvic floor exercises?
Pelvic floor exercises are precisely as they sound—a set of movements performed to strengthen the pelvic floor. While it may not be a group of muscles that, like our arms, we may be keen on toning, consider what may happen if we don’t: A weak, unexercised pelvic floor can lead to incontinence, a condition that impacts 25 to 40 percent of women.
Based on the contraction of a diamond-shaped cluster of muscles, ligaments, and nerves that support your bladder, womb and bowels, pelvic floor exercises can not only encourage natural support against incontinence but also accelerate recovery after childbirth, alleviate back pain through the development and refinement of core muscles, tighten your lower abdominals and, yes, lead to more satisfying sex.
Do I really need them?
Aging, pregnancy, childbirth, surgery, poor digestion, weight gain—all can weaken the muscles in the pelvic floor and increase the risk for pelvic floor disorders, with 1 in 11 women requiring surgery for a “PFD” during their lifetime. But all women during and after their childbearing years—as well as men—benefit from weaving these exercises into their life.
For females, they may also help prevent pelvic pain—a difficult to diagnose and treat condition in which pain is experienced anywhere in the pelvis—and vulvodynia, a syndrome, which often leads to painful intercourse, that affects as many as 60 million women globally. For men, the exercises can help stave off premature ejaculation. And any form of strengthening, as we all know, can do wonders for our heart and outlook.
How do I do them?
Good question. Here are four of the leading pelvic floor exercises:
Kegels have become part of our vernacular for a reason: they’re that effective. Otherwise known as pelvic muscle training, many physicians recommend doing them three times a day, with 10 “reps” each—with reps being squeezing your pelvic floor muscles for three-five seconds and then releasing them for the same duration.
Don’t know what constitutes your pelvic floor? The next time you urinate, hold your pee mid-stream: those are the muscles you want to target. Best part yet? You can do them anywhere from the bus stop to the line at the market. Unless you make a face (and you shouldn’t—they’re painless), no one will know you’re clenching.
Bridge—a staple of most yoga classes in which you lay on your back with your knees bent and lift your hips towards the sky—can be a boon for your pelvic floor muscles (as well as your back and lower abs). The key here is to engage your pelvic floor and yet soften your buttocks so that the right muscles—your back and pelvic floor muscles—are doing the work.
Sound sweet? Sort-of. While accessible to most, birddog can be a challenge—asking you to not just fire up your ability to balance but to also engage your pelvic floor muscles, arms and legs. Starting on all fours, raise your right leg and left arm while maintaining the plank-like position of your pelvis and shoulders. Bend and lower your arm and leg to starting position; switch after 10 reps (and aim to do it three to five times, three times a week).
It’s safe to say that few of us have thought of jumping jacks since high school calisthenics, but trust that they’re effective—not only for cardiac health (and tightening thighs) but also for working the pelvic floor. The key is to contract your pelvic floor muscles when you jump your legs apart and “let go” as you hop back. Do thirty to sixty seconds of these daily, and you can consider yourself fit in one of the body’s most important ways.