When a woman has an initial consult at the gym, she is usually asked if she suffers from conditions such as diabetes, heart disease or asthma. As well as needing this information from a legal point of view, a personal trainer will take this into account when creating an optimal workout for that woman.
Although not life-threatening, another major health issue affects a much higher proportion of the female population, which is rarely asked about but should definitely be taken into account when creating an appropriate gym workout...
This issue is stress urinary incontinence (SUI)
SUI is the involuntary leakage of urine associated with an increase in intra-abdominal pressure, such as coughing, sneezing or exercise.
Previous population based studies have shown that the percentage of women suffering from SUI is approximately one third. There are well researched risk factors associated with higher rates than this, such as pregnancy and childbirth, older age and menopause, obesity, lower back pain, chronic constipation, chronic coughing and regular heavy lifting. Research has also been done on elite athletes in high impact sports, and it has been shown that 20-80% of these female athletes suffer with SUI.
Those are large percentages of women.
Exercise and Urinary Incontinence – are women attending gyms aware of the risks?
A recent study done in Western Australia showed that nearly half (49.3%) of the women who attended gyms reported that they suffered from SUI. Although 43% stated that a fitness instructor had mentioned pelvic floor activation during a class, only 15.2% had been individually asked about it in an initial consult.
What this study shows is that SUI is a very common issue in women attending gyms (seemingly more common than in the general population), however it is rarely screened for.
How do we combat this issue?
What this research suggests is that more resources need to go into educating gym and exercise class participants and instructors on both pelvic floor exercises and what constitutes ‘pelvic floor friendly’ exercise.
The Continence Foundation of Australia (CFA) has launched an initiative called Pelvic Floor First (PFF), which includes a website created specifically for this purpose. Less than 10% of the participants in the aforementioned study had heard of this website, despite the best marketing efforts.
Regular exercise is extremely important, especially with the growing obesity crisis, and it would be tragic if an easily-avoided issue such as SUI was a barrier to exercise for women. However, women need to know that certain exercises are likely to increase the risk of pelvic floor dysfunction, including SUI and pelvic organ prolapse.
The PFF website states that pelvic floor friendly exercise includes low impact cardiovascular options such as cycling or swimming, resistance exercises that don’t cause breath holding, and basic ‘core’ muscle exercises such as leg lift sitting on a ball or modified plank exercises.
They recommend that women with pelvic floor dysfunction or in high risk categories should avoid high impact options such as boxing, running and jumping, heavy weights and high end ‘core’ and abdominal exercises such as crunches and double leg lifts.
How can women get assistance regarding pelvic floor exercises and ‘Pelvic Floor Friendly Exercise?
Gynaecological issues such as incontinence and pelvic organ prolapse may be able to be managed by conservative measures such as pelvic floor muscle training and heeding lifestyle advice on avoiding increases in intra-abdominal pressure.
Studies show that conservative management proved effective for 84% of women with mild to moderate SUI who received pelvic floor muscle training and lifestyle advice with a qualified Continence and Women’s Health Physiotherapist.
The treatment was done over an average of five sessions. The 'cure' rate was still approximately 80% after 1 year, which is comparable to, or even better than, the 'cure' rate reported with surgery.
There will be a proportion of sufferers for whom surgery is the only option, however conservative management should be considered in mild to moderate cases given that it is less invasive, less expensive and has much fewer side effects.
Pelvic floor exercises are often taught verbally, however studies have shown that this is not always adequate.
In fact, one study showed that only 49% of women were performing an ideal pelvic floor muscle contraction after verbal instruction, with a quarter of the women performing a technique that could actually promote incontinence.
Another study looked at women with incontinence and prolapse and found that more women were actually depressing the levator plate than were elevating it when cued to perform a pelvic floor contraction.
Therefore, it is highly recommended that women have their pelvic floor assessed by a Continence and Women’s Health Physiotherapist who can assess them individually and give advice on correct muscle activation.
Let’s fix this problem and keep women exercising safely in gyms!
In summary, SUI appears to be very common in women attending gyms and exercise classes.
Instead of allowing women to cease exercise because of this potentially embarrassing problem, effort needs to be put into education and prevention.
Women performing exercises that increase intra-abdominal pressure should be screened for pelvic floor dysfunction and given information on both ‘pelvic floor friendly’ exercise options and how to seek guidance from a Women’s Health and Continence Physiotherapist.
The message that is so often promoted in the media that SUI is inevitable for women and that the answer is continence pads needs to be ignored and exercising women need to be encouraged to manage this issue in a healthier, more empowering way.