What are Kegels?
Kegels are exercises you can do to strengthen your pelvic floor muscles – the muscles that support your urethra, bladder, uterus, and rectum. The exercises are named after Arnold Kegel, the gynecologist who first recommended them back in the 1940s to help women with urinary incontinence, or diminished bladder control, which can happen after childbirth.
Strengthening your pelvic floor muscles may also help prevent or treat urinary stress incontinence, a problem that affects up to two-thirds of women during pregnancy or after. (Kegel exercises may even reduce the risk of anal incontinence.)
Kegels may help keep hemorrhoids at bay and possibly speed healing after an episiotomy or tear during childbirth because they improve circulation to your rectal and vaginal area.
Continuing to do Kegel exercises regularly after giving birth not only helps you maintain bladder control, it also improves the muscle tone of your vagina, making sex more enjoyable. So if you're not already doing Kegels, now is a good time to start!
How do I do them?
Start with an empty bladder. Then pretend that you're trying to stop yourself from passing gas and interrupt the flow of urine at the same time, or imagine you're sitting on a marble and trying to pull it up into your vagina – it's a sensation of squeezing and lifting. (Don't try doing Kegels while urinating, however.)
If you're not sure you've got it, one way to check is by inserting a clean finger into your vagina then doing a Kegel. If you feel pressure around your finger, you're on the right track. Or try a Kegel while you're having sex and ask if your partner can feel it. If you're doing it correctly, your partner will notice.
Make sure you're squeezing and lifting without pulling in your tummy, squeezing your legs together, tightening your buttocks, or holding your breath. In other words, only your pelvic floor muscles should be working.
You may have trouble isolating these muscles at first, but it gets easier with practice. It might help to place a hand on your belly while you're doing your Kegels to make sure it stays relaxed.
If you're just starting to do Kegels, hold each contraction for a few seconds before releasing, and relax for a few seconds after each one. As your muscles get stronger, work up to holding each Kegel for 10 seconds, then relaxing for 10 seconds after each one.
If you're suffering from urinary stress incontinence, do a Kegel when you sneeze, cough, or lift something heavy. You may find that it keeps you from leaking.
How often should I do them?
Start by doing a few Kegels at a time throughout the day. As your muscles start to feel stronger, gradually increase both the number of Kegels you do each day and the length of time you hold each contraction, up to 10 seconds. Try to work up to two sets of 10 about three times a day, but more than that isn't a good idea – overdoing it may lead to straining when you urinate or move your bowels.
Make Kegels part of your daily routine: For example, you could do a few when you wake up in the morning, more while you're watching TV, and then one last round before you go to bed. But as long as you do them regularly, it really doesn't matter when or where you do them.
Be patient and keep at it. It may take four to six weeks of doing Kegels regularly before you notice an improvement in bladder control.
How long should I continue doing Kegels?
Don't stop doing Kegels! Continuing the exercise maintains strength and wards off incontinence as you age, so make Kegels a lifelong habit.
Working to keep your pelvic floor muscles strong may also guard against pelvic organ prolapse, a common condition among older women. In pelvic organ prolapse, weakening pelvic muscles and ligaments can make the uterus, bladder, and rectal tissue sag and protrude into the vagina. This may cause incontinence as well as a sense of pelvic heaviness, low back pain, and discomfort during sex.