Ask any fitness trainer about the benefits of physical exercise and they will write you a long list. From toning muscles to providing your internal organs with the right nutrients, no one can deny the positives from exercise and movement. But of the 600-odd muscles in the human body, there are ones that we tend to take for granted when keeping fit.
The pelvic floor muscles.
Let’s take look at what they are and why their health is important.
Our pelvic floor muscles are the layer of muscles that support the pelvic organs and span the bottom of the pelvis. In a way you can say it is like a hammock, that keeps our bits together – bladder, bowel and uterus for women and bladder and bowel in men.
These muscles stretch like a muscular trampoline from the tailbone (coccyx) to the pubic bone (front to back) and from one sitting bone to the other sitting bone (side to side). These muscles are normally firm and thick. Our organs lie on the pelvic floor muscle layer. To help our organs function properly, this muscle structure allows for movement.
On this layer, there are holes for passages, two for men which are the urethra and anus, and three for women including the vagina. Like any muscles, they are can trained and controlled like the rest of the muscles in our body. For example, when you have the urge to pee, you know you are able to “control” the flow of the urine and that’s the work of the pelvic floor muscle.
What does this floor do
These muscles give us conscious control over the bladder and bowel so that we can control the release of urine, faeces and flatus or wind and allow us to delay emptying until it is convenient. They also play a part in sexual function for men and women, where for men it contributes to erectile function and ejaculation while for women voluntary contractions or squeezing the pelvic floor contribute to sexual sensation and arousal. It works with the back muscles and abdominal region to provide assistance to our spine. For expectant mothers, this “floor” is crucial as it provides support for the baby and helps the mother during delivery.
Problems with the pelvic floor muscle
Over time, like any muscle that has not been looked after, pelvic floor muscles can weaken. Age, carrying excessive weight, straining when in the toilet and pregnancy are some of the factors that lead to degradation. This then may contribute to incontinence, which affects some 200 million people all over the world, based on statistics from the Continence Foundation of Malaysia. Their data show that one in four women over the age of 18 experience episodes of leaking urine involuntarily. Urinary incontinence is also twice as common in women compared to men, mainly due to age and pregnancy.
The foundation points out that the most common type of incontinence is stress incontinence. This happens when the pressure in the bladder becomes too great for the bladder outlet to withstand, as a result of weak pelvic floor muscles. Urine tends to leak most when you cough, laugh, sneeze or when you exercise, say when you run or jump. In these situations there is a sudden extra pressure inside the abdomen and on the bladder. Small amounts of urine often leak. Stress incontinence can occur in men who have had some treatments for prostate cancer.
What you can do
You may have heard of Kegel exercises where trainers teach you to tighten the muscles used to stop the floor of urine and releasing them. It can be done seated on the floor, chair or even standing. Another form of exercise is the squat, where some experts have argued to be more beneficial than the Kegel. Squats as demonstrated by Joanna Audrey here, help lengthen and strengthen the pelvic floor muscles.
To have the squat use more of the glute muscles, lean back on to your heels, where they are either on the floor or support with a pad or block. The more vertical the shin is to your ankle, the more glute muscles you will be using. These exercises can be done by both men and women, and please do consult your doctor to find out if you’re cleared for these simple exercises.
By Susan Tam
Susan Tam is a certified yoga instructor with over a decade of yoga experience, certified under the 450 training hours programme organised by the Malaysian Association of Yoga Instructors (MAYI). Her prenatal yoga instructor certification is qualified by Surya Yoga’s 20-hour intensive training programme. She and partner Joanna Audrey offer prenatal yoga classes at Fitology Bangsar, every Saturday at 2.30pm. Find their practice here.
Image credits: Wikimedia Common and Joanna Audrey