Exercising safely during pregnancy
Are you keeping active? Read about how to start or continue exercising safely now that you're pregnant, and why it's so beneficial.
The pelvic floor is a set of muscles attached to the base of your spine at the back, and your pubic bone at the front. These muscles act like a hammock, supporting your bowel, uterus and bladder, which all pass through this hammock. If you need to use the toilet, or if you sneeze or lift a heavy object, your pelvic floor muscles contract to keep everything in place.
They also form the base of your core – the group of muscles which run from your pelvis to your diaphragm and are responsible for stability when exercising.
An easy way to locate your pelvic floor is by trying to stop mid-flow when you’re having a wee. The internal muscles you lift and clench to do this form your pelvic floor. It’s not advisable to do this regularly, though, as it can harm your bladder1.
Your pelvic floor plays a particularly important role during pregnancy and labour2.
Primarily, it supports the weight of your growing baby; the heavier your baby gets, the more these muscles feel the strain. Along with the challenge of supporting such a heavy load, your pelvic floor is also affected by increased levels of relaxin – a pregnancy hormone that softens the muscles and ligaments of your pelvis in preparation for childbirth. As the hormone makes them less effective at holding your bladder, it’s no wonder that some expectant mums experience the odd leak when they cough, sneeze or exercise.
Later on, when labour begins, your pelvic floor helps to rotate your baby’s head into the ideal position, ready for birth. As your womb contracts to push your baby down, the gentle resistance from your stretchy pelvic floor below encourages your baby’s chin to tuck and their head to turn. Once they are in this position, it is easier for their head to pass under the pubic bone, ready for crowning3.
With regular, simple exercises, you can strengthen your pelvic floor
muscles and reduce the likelihood of certain problems later on.
After nine months of supporting your baby, and the necessary stretching required to let your baby through the birth canal during labour, your pelvic floor may be understandably weaker after birth. Around 40 percent of women who have had a baby experience ‘stress incontinence’ – leaking urine when they sneeze or cough4. Mums can experience stress incontinence regardless of delivery method. It is thought to be mostly a consequence of being pregnant in general5.
However, the good news is that pregnant women undertaking pelvic floor muscle training have been found to have a lower incidence of urinary incontinence6 after birth.
With regular, simple exercises, you can strengthen your pelvic floor muscles and reduce the likelihood of certain problems later on7.
The most effective way to improve both the strength and stamina of your pelvic floor muscles is to combine both short and long squeezes.
You can perform pelvic floor, or ‘Kegel’ exercises sitting, standing or lying down, although if you’re sitting you may find it less tempting to squeeze your buttocks. Go for quality rather than quantity – doing it correctly is more important than doing it repeatedly – and check that you’re not simply squeezing your buttocks, or holding your breath. The squeeze should be internal, and your breathing should remain normal.
Think of activities you perform regularly and repeatedly throughout your day and practise your pelvic floor exercises at the same time. It might be cleaning your teeth, having a shower, waiting for the kettle to boil, or after every toilet break. It can also be helpful to leave reminders on sticky notes around the house.
If you can get yourself into a routine of regularly strengthening your pelvic floor muscles now, you may well avoid problems after birth.
“We’re now seeing evidence that exercising in pregnancy may be one of the best things you can do for your baby’s future health. Pregnancy exercise can have a huge impact on your personal experience of pregnancy, too. Provided you follow the expert guidelines, it’s safe for most women to continue and even start exercising in pregnancy. Just make sure you check with your midwife or doctor first, in case there are any specific medical reasons why you should avoid being physically active in pregnancy.”
1. NHS Choices. What are pelvic floor exercises (Kegel exercises)? [Online]. Available at:http://www.nhs.uk/chq/pages/1063.aspx?categoryid=52 [Accessed: December 2016].
2. Ashton-Miller J, Delancey J. Functional anatomy of the female pelvic floor. Ann NY Acad Sci 2007;1101(1):266-96.
3. Herbert J. Pregnancy and childbirth: the effects on pelvic floor muscles. Nursing Times 2009;105(7):38-41.
4. Sangsawang B, Sangsawang N. Stress urinary incontinence in pregnant women: a review of prevalence, pathophysiology, and treatment. Int Urogynecol J 2013;24(6):901-12.
5. McKinnie V et al. The effect of pregnancy and mode of delivery on the prevalence of urinary and fecal incontinence. Am J Obstet Gynecol 2005;193(2):512-7.
6. Boyle R et al. Pelvic floor muscle training for prevention and treatment of urinary and faecal incontinence in antenatal and postnatal women. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2012;10:CD.
7. Boyle R et al. Pelvic floor muscle training for prevention and treatment of urinary and faecal incontinence in antenatal and postnatal women. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2012;10:CD007471.
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