Tor Svensson

What’s up down there? Turns out a lot of women may be afraid to ask this question. Many are too embarrassed to admit that they can’t exercise vigorously without the risk of peeing their pants.

That’s what I discovered when I tried to add jump rope intervals to my boot camp class. My group of moms made it quite clear that repeatedly jumping up and down with post-baby vaginal and bladder muscles was not an option. Every one of them complained about leakage. Merely sneezing or coughing, they told me, was reason enough for worry. Jumping up and down for 60 seconds at a time? Forget it.

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The revelations got me thinking about the recent onslaught of ads about bladder control. There’s the one  featuring two middle-aged women in a flashy convertible going on a cross-country road trip. One woman happily declares that next to driving a hot car, the best part of the trip is not having to worry about looking for rest stops on account of her Depends. So it’s OK to pee on yourself in a cool car as long as you have your diaper? I don’t think that’s what Thelma and Louise had in mind.

Then there’s the cute commercial featuring women made of metal pipes, except some of them have leaky valves. Don’t worry. Just pop a pill to fix the problem.

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What ever happened to good ol’ exercise? We focus on every other group of muscles in our bodies. Yet somehow the importance of strengthening our pelvic floor has been left out of our workout regimens.

Before you resort to a life of adult diapers or pharmaceutical intervention, here’s the 411 on the pelvic floor and easy exercises to strengthen your muscles down there.

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So What is the Pelvic Floor?

Here’s a quick anatomy lesson. The pelvic floor is made up of many layers of muscles that stretch from the pubic bone to the tailbone and attach side to side to the sitting bones. Pelvic floor muscles work like a trampoline to support the bladder, bowel, uterus and vagina. Problems occur when these muscles become too weak to spring back. So instead of holding up the organs and contracting tightly, they become slack. This happens often during pregnancy and childbirth when the pelvic floor stretches and weakens, causing urine control problems for months or even years after childbirth.

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Although it may not be openly talked about, incontinence stemming from pelvic floor disorder is the worst kept secret among women. Nearly a quarter of all women have some form of pelvic floor disorder, ranging from incontinence to more advanced conditions like pelvic organ prolapse (when the uterus or another pelvic organ drops from its usual position). And in the case of uterine prolapse, the condition is so serious that it typically requires surgery to repair.

Age, childbirth and obesity increase the likelihood of a pelvic floor disorder. And the first step to prevention is keeping off those extra pounds.

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Sexercise

Obviously, the pelvic floor is important for activities of everyday life. But a strong pelvic floor and healthy vaginal muscles can boost your sex life. Stronger vaginal muscles don’t tire as quickly, and by increasing the number of muscle contractions, you can increase the length and intensity of your orgasms. That fact alone should have you doing super sets of your long-neglected kegel exercises.

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Kegels are easy, and you can do them anywhere without anyone knowing. It’s important to make sure you’re firing the right muscles, so locate them by sitting or lying down and contracting the muscles you would use to stop urinating. You should feel your pelvic muscles squeezing your urethra and anus. If your stomach or butt muscles tighten, you are not using the right muscles.

Once you've hit the target, contract the pelvic muscles. Squeeze for three seconds, and then relax for three seconds. Repeat this exercise 10 to 15 times, and try to do them at least three times a day. And remember that for kegel exercises to be effective, they have to be done regularly. 

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Pump Some Iron

You won’t find these barbells at the gym. But yes, there are itty-bitty vaginal weights that strengthen the vagina. Some women find that having something inside the vagina helps them feel the muscles contracting around it, so there are devices that can create resistance.

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By squeezing your pelvic muscles against weight, holding the contracted muscle then releasing, your pelvic muscles become firmer and tighter at rest. This improves the tone of the muscle and over time builds up endurance. The weights come in different sizes, so you can graduate to heavier ones as you get stronger.

Stretch and Strengthen

And if putting a tiny barbell between your legs is not your style, try Pilates. It’s a more accessible but extremely effective way to strengthen your pelvic floor. Pilates works the deepest abdominal muscles and the muscles of the pelvic floor. Some of the most effective Pilates exercises use a ring or ball between your knees or ankles. These exercises target your pelvic floor and your vaginal muscles and give you better control and awesome abs.

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The good thing about these exercises is that no one really has to know you’re doing them. Get yourself on a regular regimen, and you’ll be jumping rope like a boxer in no time.

Alicia Villarosa is a regular contributor to The Root.