It’s typically associated with women in their fifties and those who have had children.
But a medical expert has warned that women in their 20s are increasing their risk of developing incontinence, by doing too many high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and Cross-Fit workouts.
Consultant physiotherapist Dr Kay Crotty said the high-impact moves subject the pelvic floor to ‘abnormally high forces’, weakening the muscles and upping the risk of embarrassing leakages.
HIIT is a training method that burns fat quickly. It’s considered to be more effective than normal cardio because of the intense nature of the workout
HIIT is a training method that burns fat quickly, and is considered to be more effective than straightforward cardio because of the intense nature of the workout, which involves bursts of extreme activity interspersed with brief periods of recovery.
But Dr Crotty, who explained that a woman’s pelvic floor acts both as a ‘platform’ to support the bladder, and in that it helps to keep the bladder valve closed, said: ‘Any high impact workout will subject the pelvic floor to repeated abnormally high forces.
‘The pelvic floor will struggle to remain stable and as the workout continues there is the potential for the pelvic floor to move downward too much and become overstretched.’
She said a year of high-intensity workouts three times a week could leave a childless woman in her 20s with a pelvic floor comparable to that of a woman who had given birth.
The physiotherapist stressed the importance of women consciously ‘switching on’ their pelvic floor muscles during exercise to avoid over-stretching.
Often associated with the older generation, popular high-impact exercises can put increased downward pressure on the pelvic floor, which can weaken the muscles
‘As the muscle begins to naturally tire, the stresses of the workout will have a greater and greater negative impact,’ she added.
Some young women will be more prone to incontinence if they are hypermobile, cough a lot or are overweight.
A lot of women suffer from incontinence after having had a baby, putting them at increased risk.
Dr Crotty said: ‘Most women who have delivered a baby vaginally would see changes almost immediately, with a potential worsening if they continue high impact [exercise].’
Some young women will be more prone to incontinence if they are hypermobile, cough a lot or are overweight
Dr Kay Crotty, a consultant physiotherapist, says about 15 per cent of elite athletes have incontinence, but adds that they are exercising far more than three times a week.
Her advice to women who do HIIT would be to get used to ‘switching on’, or engaging, the pelvic floor during all workouts.
‘It is a very important part of the core although the PFM is often left out, with people concentrating on activating the low abdominal muscles,’ says Dr Crotty, resident physio for Elvie, the pelvic floor trainer that connects to an app via Bluetooth.
‘The pelvic floor is every bit as important on stabilising the core so use it.
‘When the pelvic floor is consciously switched on the bladder will be more stable and there is less risk of over stretching the key soft tissues.’
Exercises that won’t impact the pelvic floor include swimming using an interval training approach and stationary cycling – although spinning in standing positions can actually be stressful for the pelvic floor.
To strengthen up your pelvic floor, try doing at least 30 strong holds held for up to 10 seconds 3 days a week for about 6 months
Dr Crotty said taking the time to practice routine contractions can be helpful for strengthening the pelvic floor.
‘To strengthen up you need to be doing at least 30 strong holds held for up to 10 seconds 3 days a week for about 6 months.
‘After that it can be dropped to a couple of times per week.
‘But the key is doing them correctly. Up to 30 per cent of women will do a contraction incorrectly and this can be potentially very damaging.
‘If in doubt, seek professional help from a specialist physiotherapist, or use a biofeedback device such as Elvie to guide you,’ she said.