Toughen up your pelvic floor
Your pelvic floor is incredibly important in pregnancy, so it’s a good idea to keep it strong.
Just in case you don’t know already, the pelvic floor is made up of layers of muscle which stretch from the front of your pubic bone to the end of your backbone, supporting your bladder, bowel, and uterus like a hammock. For many women, it is normal for their pelvic floor to weaken as they get older, even if they have never had children.
Pregnancy, however, is the time when the strength of your pelvic floor muscles will be put to the test. For starters, your muscles and ligaments will be loosened because of hormonal changes that are preparing your body for childbirth. Add to this the fact that a little human is gradually developing inside of you, whose increasing weight will be putting pressure on your pelvic floor, and the risk of the muscles overstretching is high; this can cause a number of issues. This is why exercising your pelvic floor, even at this early stage, is vital.
The most common problem associated with a weak pelvic floor is incontinence. This means that whenever you cough or sneeze, you could small amounts of urine. Incontinence is very common both during pregnancy and in the postpartum period. Even if you’re not being bothered by incontinence now, it is still recommended that you practice pelvic floor exercises so that you give yourself the best chance of avoiding it later on.
Other benefits of exercising your pelvic floor include minimising your chances of suffering a prolapse (where your pelvic organs drop down into your vagina instead of being supported in their normal position by the muscles), improving the time it takes for the area between your vagina and anus to heal after childbirth, and increasing sensation during sex after childbirth.
Finding the perfect low-intensity exercise for pregnancy
There a number of activities to help strengthen the pelvic floor muscles, such as Pilates. However, do some homework before signing up to a class. While Pilates has been known to help, your muscles need to be at a certain level of strength in order to benefit from the exercises. If they are too weak, then a Pilates class may actually damage them.
The great thing about most pelvic floor exercises is that they’re very low-intensity, perfectly safe, can be done very easily in the comfort of your own home (or wherever you want actually), and are almost universally recommended for all women, regardless of their age and whether they’re pregnant or not. (But if you haven’t been doing them up until now, then there is no more apt time to start than during your pregnancy.) See below for the perfect pelvic floor pull up!
The easy pace of these exercises is bound to be welcomed in the first trimester. In these initial weeks, a symptom you may be experiencing (along with many other women who are in their first trimester) is the feeling of nausea and frequent vomiting. A much more intense version of this, though far more rare, is a condition known as hyperemesis gravidarum (HG), which is extremely severe sickness. For the one in 100 women who suffer from HG, it usually begins a few weeks into their pregnancy and doesn’t subside until part way through their second trimester.
If you’re having to deal with these thoroughly unpleasant symptoms, you may feel that any form of exercise feels a little too much, and you might be tempted to give the gym a miss. But the convenience of pelvic floor exercises means that you don’t have to leave the house or use too much effort, so you should be able to manage them, even when suffering from HG.
How do I do a pelvic floor exercise?
First of all, you will need to know exactly where your pelvic floor muscles are and get used to what contracting them feels like.
If you want an easy way of locating the muscles, they are what you use if you stop the flow of urine when going to the toilet. A quick word of caution here, though – while this is a good way to find the muscles initially, it’s a bad idea to do the exercise while urinating. Continuously stopping and starting your urine can damage your bladder, possibly leading to a urinary tract infection.
Now that you know what it means to contract your pelvic floor muscles, you can try the exercise.
The exercise can be done either standing or sitting. Squeeze your pelvic floor muscles (just as you would to stop yourself going to the toilet) and hold them contracted for as long as you can. Then slowly release. To start with, you may not be able to hold the contraction for that long. This is fine. The muscles will get stronger with practise. Try to build up to a hold of 10 seconds.
You want to aim for three to four sets of eight squeezes each day (repeat the squeeze and release exercise eight times then rest – this is one set). If you’re comfortable and confident doing it, you could raise the number of squeezes per set to 10 or 12.
Be conscious of your breathing while doing the exercise. You don’t want to get too used to holding your breath as you clench the muscles, as you want to be able to keep them contracted while exhaling as well. This is because coughing and sneezing causes you to forcefully exhale, so if you can’t maintain control when you breathe out, you’re not really building a good defence against incontinence.
And remember that even though they are very low intensity, it’s still possible to overdo your pelvic floor exercises. So make sure that you give yourself a good enough rest period between sets of squeezes. Spread out the sets evenly throughout the day instead of doing them in quick succession. You may also want to have a brief rest of a few seconds between the individual exercises, especially the first few times you do the routine.
Any time, any place
Once you’ve learned how to do the exercise comfortably, you can do it anywhere. And we mean anywhere. Because it is inconspicuous, you can do the exercises while at your desk at work, while waiting for a bus, or when standing in line at the post office.
Doing the exercises regularly will allow you to become used to it, so used to them that they become ingrained in your daily routine. It might help for you to associate the exercise with another everyday activity, so that every time you do a mundane task, such as brushing your teeth or making a cup of tea, you also do your pelvic floor exercises. This will help ensure that you don’t forget them or become too irregular with the frequency at which you exercise.
While they are a very safe form of pregnancy exercise, you should let your doctor or midwife know that you’ve been doing pelvic floor exercises, as they will be able to give you further guidance and advice regarding what is safe for you. You should also tell them if you think you’re experiencing any abnormalities – for instance, if you feel as though you’re struggling more than you should to complete the exercise – or if you’re suffering from incontinence and don’t notice any improvement after a few months.
Above all, if there is only one fitness regime you take up during pregnancy, pelvic floor exercises are a must – a strong pelvic floor is a good thing for life.