Kegels: The Exercise You’re Not Doing (But Should Be)

date: May 20, 2014

You can do them anytime, anywhere—while standing in line at the grocery store, during a business meeting or in the car on your commute home from work—and nobody will be the wiser. They’re simple to do (once you get the hang of it) but it can still be hard to remember to do them.

What are they?  “Kegel” exercises that help strengthen the pelvic floor muscles.

Kegels are named after the doctor who published a study about them in 1948. While you might not think of them as all that important, the exercise is actually crucial for a number of reasons—for both women and men. For women, pelvic floor muscles weaken over time thanks to a variety of factors, such as carrying and delivering a child, having a hysterectomy, being overweight and simply getting older. When these muscles are weak, women may experience urinary or fecal incontinence or difficulty achieving an orgasm. Men also face the risk of a weakened urinary sphincter (and urinary incontinence as a result); this is a particular risk in men with overactive bladder or following surgery for prostate cancer.

While everyone should do these exercises to keep the pelvic floor healthy and prevent incontinence, it’s especially important to work them into your daily routine if you leak a few drops of urine when you sneeze, laugh or cough, leak stool or have a strong, sudden urge to urinate just before losing a large amount of urine (more than normal). The best part: “Doing these exercises regularly may not only help your bladder control but also contribute to a more enjoyable sex life,” says Cindy Geyer, M.D., medical director of Canyon Ranch in Lenox, Mass.

More: Common Urination Problems in Men

How to Do Kegels the Right Way

Kegels are a simple way to strengthen your pelvic floor muscles and they work pretty quickly. If you do them regularly, you can expect to see results, such as less frequent leakage of urine, within a few months. The key is exercising the appropriate muscles. Doctors say it’s common to target the wrong ones, especially if you’re starting out with a very weak pelvic floor. After all, it’s tempting for the body to use stronger muscles to support the weaker ones.

To accurately find your pelvic floor muscles, try one of the following techniques:

  • Pretend you’re at a cocktail party…and need to prevent passing gas. You know that feeling you get? What you’re actually doing is squeezing the muscles of your anus, which are part of your pelvic floor muscles. Many doctors find this is the most effective technique to help patients locate the correct muscles.
  • For women, find your vaginal muscles. Lie down, insert a (clean) finger into your vagina and try to squeeze around your finger with your vaginal muscles. If you feel a contraction in your vagina—you might even be able to feel pressure on your finger—you are using the right muscles.
  • For men, make your penis move. Stand in front of a mirror and watch as you try to make your penis move up and down without moving the rest of your body. If you can do this, it’s a sign you’ve located your pelvic floor muscles and are engaging them.

You may have read that you can find your pelvic floor muscles by holding your urine midstream. That’s incorrect; this can actually weaken the muscles and worsen any symptoms. When you first start practicing Kegels, you may reflexively use other, stronger muscles in the body, such as your stomach, chest or buttocks. If you find yourself contracting your abs, holding your breath or clenching your butt cheeks while practicing Kegels, these can be signs you’re not fully using your pelvic floor muscles.
How to Work Kegels into Your Daily Routine

Experts recommend a total of 60 pelvic floor muscle repetitions a day, with each squeeze and relaxation counting as one repetition. You can do them all at once or break them up throughout the day. If your days are unpredictable, it might be helpful to get in the habit of doing 30 reps in the morning and 30 in the evening.

Just as you need a regular fitness routine if you want more toned arms or a flatter stomach, regularly exercising the pelvic floor muscles gives them the best shot at getting noticeably stronger. This, in turn, helps prevent and treat the symptoms of a weak pelvic floor, something that will become increasingly important as you age. What’s more, regular repetition of these exercises helps you gain control over these muscles, which will allow you to access them quickly. This can come in handy if, say, you sneeze and want to stop any urine leakage. “Doing a Kegel when you feel the urge to urinate sometimes gives you time to get to the bathroom,” Dr. Geyer says.

When you first start practicing these exercises, you might need to dedicate a quiet time so you can concentrate on finding the right muscles. As you improve, you can start doing your Kegels during other activities you do on a daily basis:

  • When you’re brushing your teeth
  • While you watch the morning and evening news
  • When you’re driving; try doing them at every red light or stop sign
  • While talking on the phone to a friend
  • During commercial breaks when you’re watching your favorite TV shows

After a while, you won’t even have to keep count of the number of reps you’ve done. As long as you’re doing multiple reps in a row, you’ll start to get a sense of how long it takes you to complete 30 or so. Ideally, you’ll be so in the habit of doing your Kegels every day that you won’t even need to think about doing them—it’ll become second nature.

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