Gwyneth Paltrow is concerned you might be peeing your pants. The Goop founder recently used her website to highlight the unconscious un-coupling between women and their pelvic floor — and for good reason. A study by USA’s Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality found that up to 45 per cent of women suffer urinary incontinence (aka leakage), with up to 30 per cent of young women falling victim. Yet the negative side effects of a weak pelvic floor go beyond gradually replacing the tampons for adult diapers on your weekend shopping list.
“So many women suffer in silence, thinking it’s normal to have a low libido, lack of orgasm, an inability to lubricate properly, urinary incontinence and lower back pain,” says mother and self-taught intimacy expert Kim Anami. “But it’s not normal, and it can be reversed.” Bali-based Anami has spent 20 years studying tantra, herbal medicine and meditation, and now runs online “vaginal kung-fu” workouts (Kimanami.com), helping women become better acquainted with this mystifying muscle group.
But a healthy pelvic floor influences more than just the bedroom and bathroom. This collection of muscles and tissues, which sits at the base of your pelvis, essentially holds your uterus, bladder and bowel in place. “As the pelvic floor is hidden from view it’s very hard for women to visualise or connect with,” explains Elizabeth Evans, a physiotherapist specialising in women’s health and pelvic conditions. “But weakness can cause pelvic organ prolapse — when the bladder, bowel or uterus descends towards or even out of the vagina, requiring extensive training, vaginal pessary support or surgery to fix.”
While pregnancy and age are clear contributors, any repeated strain on the area, whether through constipation, chronic respiratory conditions or high-impact sport, can lead to a weak pelvic floor. “There is also a group of women who have pelvic floor muscles that are actually too tight and they’re experiencing similar symptoms due to a dysfunction,” explains Evans, who recommends all women test their own inner strength by visiting a professional pelvic floor physiotherapist or a gynaecologist who will prescribe an at-home program of exercises to follow. “The phrase ‘use it or lose it’ couldn’t be more true for the pelvic floor — the muscles need to be strong because they’re the only set we get,” she adds.
Think you’re a star student if you’re already practising kegels? Think again. “Most women know they should be doing pelvic floor exercises, but more than 50 per cent of females don’t know how to do a correct pelvic floor contraction and 25 per cent are actually doing them in a detrimental way,” says Evans (the correct technique is all about lifting up).
Of course, in this app-obsessed era, the tech-heads have created several new gadgets that act like personal (very personal) trainers for your vagina. There’s the egg-shaped Elvie, which is inserted into the vagina and uses sensors and bluetooth to send the results from the five-minute “clenching” workout to your smart phone via an app, and the kGoal, which gives you real-time feedback to make sure you get the moves right. There’s also the crowdfunded SKEA (Smart Kegel Exercise Aid), which basically sees you playing a video game with your vagina as the controller.
Taking a more lo-fi approach, Anami’s vaginal kung-fu involves a jade egg being inserted into the vagina. A string is attached, from which she encourages her clients to weight train by carrying everything from household objects to free weights. She’s so convinced of this movement that she’s gone social, documenting her personal crusade on Instagram using the hashtag #ThingsILiftWithMyVagina —and she says her clients have also experienced life-changing results thanks to her methods. “One client had a 20-year problem of urinary incontinence disappear after one week,” she says. “And I’ve had many women experience their first G-spot or cervical orgasm after only a few days of practice.”
Taboo topics aside, Anami is adamant a healthy pelvic floor keeps more than just the internal organs in place. “A strong pelvic floor creates lifting action in the body that results in a natural ‘facelift’. I’ve had clients stop using Botox after practising,” she insists. Well then, it’s no wonder the ever-youthful anti-ageing guru Gwyneth is on board with it.
A quick guide to doing kegels right:
Find the muscles: Those muscles that stop your pee mid-flow? That’s your pelvic floor.
Ease into the squeeze: Contract and release these muscles a few times to get used to the exercise. Avoid simply squeezing your butt and thighs — you want to squeeze and lift the base of your pelvis from within.
Build your strength: Start off by squeezing for a few seconds, building up to 10 seconds, and make sure you release slowly each time.
Keep it up: Just like weekly Pilates creates a stronger core, you have to continue with these exercise seven after you’ve gained pelvic strength.
Photograph: Kenneth Willardt