Can't go on a trampoline? Terrified to sneeze? Would never consider a running club for fear you'll need a change of leggings? Thanks to some great new products, it's all easily fixed - without shame. Emma Bartley reports
When Get The Gloss asked me to write about pelvic floor issues, I suspect they were hoping for a list of 25 Inappropriate Places I Have Wee’d Myself Since Having a Baby. From a jaunt with a glamorous running club to an ill-timed cough at a funeral, I could share those in the hope that a laugh would cheer up the millions of women who suffer from stress incontinence. At least until they had to change their underwear.
Hearteningly, though, I think we’ve moved on from the time when only antenatal teachers and dreadful oversharers spoke about pelvic floor exercises. Awareness of the area has been improving gradually, thanks to the rise of strength-focused exercise classes like Pilates and Barrecore, where you’re encouraged to engage your pelvic floor. Now products like LELO Luna Beads ™ and Elvie , “your most personal trainer”, are threatening to make them downright sexy.
This normalising wind seems to have originated in the US, where boutique gymgoers expect to work EVERY SINGLE MUSCLE during a class. “We use the term ‘move your sit bones closer together’ or simply, ‘lift your pelvic floor’ numerous times in class to ensure clients are constantly connected to that area of their body, engaging and strengthening this very important muscle,” says Barrecore founder Niki Rein. I called Niki for two reasons – one, she swears that her regular clients give birth easily and get back into shape quickly afterwards, and two, I’ve never forgotten the woman who whispered to me in a Barrecore changing room that her husband reckoned it was “tighter down there” since she took it up.
And then there was 50 Shades. Don’t tell me you haven’t read it – I wish I could wash my brain out, obviously, but I’ve read it too and recall a key scene in which Christian gives Anastasia a set of vaginal beads to wear while he spanks her. (Fortunately Ana is 23 and hasn’t recently given birth, as this would be much less erotic if they just fell straight out.) That prompted a huge increase in sales for LELO, a Swedish brand who make posh “designer” sex toys, of their LUNA Beads™ – which just happen to be an excellent pelvic floor workout.
I’ve tried them out and they are quite fun: two little weighted balls on a string that vibrate as you move around and apparently prompt your pelvic floor muscles to work naturally. You could put them in and do kegels, or follow Anastasia’s example and involve a friend. “I pop them in and go for a jog occasionally, and my boyfriend has said he’s noticed a difference too!” says one review on the website. “I used to dread the jump up and down sections of my Zumba work out class, but after using the Luna beads for a month, I am jumping high with no concerns,” says another.
So far, so sexy: but the real game-changer is Elvie. Launched just over a year ago, it’s the first fitness tracker for the pelvic floor, and has already sold to more than 50 countries. A subtle, apostrophe-shaped device in pastel green, it's visually appealing but the main attraction is that it makes training measurable. Elvie can tell if you’re doing your pelvic floor exercises right, and is linked up to a smartphone app that can give you pointers if you’re not. It can tell you how strong you are using its “LV score”, and challenge you to work out harder and for longer. Instead of a secret, almost shameful practice, it’s turned kegels into something you can compete with yourself – maybe even your friends – about.
“The first thing women always say to me is, ‘I’ve tried doing pelvic floor exercises but I don’t know if I’m doing them correctly,” says physiotherapist Dr Kay Crotty, who helped to develop Elvie. “If they’ve had a baby they may have lost some sensation and not be able to feel what they’re doing, but Elvie gives them the visual so that when they pull up, if they’re pulling in the right direction, a vertical line will shoot upwards and come down on the app.”
According to Kay, you’ll never be the same down there after giving birth, but a six-month training phase should get you back up to about 75% and you can then cut your exercises down to about once or twice a week. “What you need is big push of about six months doing them very consistently every day: sitting down to feed a baby is the ideal time to do it. You don’t have to use the Elvie every time you exercise, but a lot of women find that having a gizmo makes them do it more.”
Elodie Poissenot, the specialist from Mummy's Physio with whom I was lucky to have some sessions last year, agrees – though she points out that you’ll need to do a range of exercises for best results. “Don't forget there are many different muscles in your pelvic floor, each with a different function (to hold urine or to improve orgasm, say) and you’ll need different exercises to stimulate them.” Again, it’s a question of building these into your daily routine. “Every time you brush your teeth, contract your anterior pelvic floor as if you want to hold urine for 10 seconds,” suggests Elodie. “Every time you are waiting for a bus, hold wind. Contract your transverse muscles (the one you engage when you pull tummy up), when you go for a run or when you cough.”
Even women who haven’t had children (or were wise enough to go for an elective Caesarean) can benefit from a few minutes' daily training, Kay adds. “We want to get Elvie out to women who haven’t had a baby because we want them to be strong, know what the pelvic floor is, and obviously if they do have children they’ll be getting back to 75% of a much higher strength level. And childbirth isn’t the only factor: at least 25% of women will be incontinent at least once a month after 40 whether they’ve had a baby or not. Most women just don’t talk about it.”
Or at least, they didn’t. My advice? Get an Elvie, buy the beads, strengthen your core and tell your friends. Just think of what you’ll save on washing powder.