The muscles women shouldn't be ignoring

While we're strengthening certain muscles when we workout, we may be inadvertently weakening others, causing a common problem to many women.

Intense exercise is one of the primary factors that makes urinary incontinence more common among women, affecting one in eight teenage girls and as many as one in three women. 

In fact, one new study found that urinary incontinence is three times more common among female athletes.

Why? Because "intensity of exercise and non-awareness of what they're doing to their bodies", leads to strain, weakening pelvic floor muscles, says Jenny Rivett of the Victorian Continence Resource Centre (VCRC). 

"They're looking after everything else and forgetting that part of their core is the pelvic floor as well and they forgetting to look after those muscles," Rivett adds. "It's like any other muscle group – your pelvic floor needs to be looked after."

The pelvic floor muscles, which are like a trampoline supporting the organs in our pelvis, control our bladder and bowels and help to keep the vagina and uterus in place. When pelvic floor muscles are weak, a little or a lot of urine can leak when we cough, sneeze, laugh, jump or exercise. 

The stereotype is that it is an older person's problem (and it is true that it is more prevalent in the elderly as well as women who have given birth or been through menopause) but, that is not the case.

"This is a problem area for teen girls," says associate professor Nicole Wragg, from Swinburne, who co-created a new awareness campaign, Go Against the Flow.

The campaign, by the VCRC and Swinburne University of Technology, is designed to raise awareness about the prevalence of bladder leakage in young women and the importance of maintaining pelvic floor muscles. 

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Over the course of three years while creating the campaign, Wragg held workshops with 15 to 19-year-old girls to find out how much they understood about the pelvic floor and its function.  

"It was interesting how unaware they were of even a thing called pelvic floor," Wragg says. "If they knew about pelvic floor they thought it was just something to do with older people. When they did know, there was negative associations – 'why would you talk about that, ew yuk'."

Such stigma means that 70 per cent of those with urinary leakage do not seek advice and treatment for their problem.

Rather, Wragg found among girls, "Dr Google is No. 1".

She hopes the campaign will start the conversation and reduce stigma. "It shouldn't be hidden," Wragg says.

 Rivett adds that although it is a common problem, it is "not normal".

 The VCRC provides suggestions for simple exercises to help strengthen the area, but Rivett says that being able to relax the muscles is as important as being able to switch them on.

"There's been a lot of work in the space of strengthening, but you can go down the other line of going a bit too tight," she says.

When the pelvic floor muscles are too tight, it can make it difficult to go to the loo, it can make sex difficult and cause pain in the area.  

If, after working on the muscles, the symptoms remain, Rivett promises it's a problem people don't have to live with.

"There is help and they don't have to put up with it." 

Go Against the Flow quick pelvic floor activities

"Tighten the muscles around your anus as though you're trying to stop a fart from escaping," the site suggests. "Now do the same at the front, as though trying to stop pee coming out. Can you do it? To try tightening your vagina, squeeze in as you lift up, and then release and relax."

  • Practice a few strong contractions then 10 quick flicks.
  • Practice a long, slow squeeze up to 30 seconds.
  • Remember, relax shoulders, legs, tummy and butt, and don't hold your breath.
  • Getting the movement right is more important than how hard you squeeze or how many you do.
This article The muscles women shouldn't be ignoring was originally published in Brisbane Times.

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