By the age of 40, one would think we would know all there is to know about our ‘private parts’. It would seem, however, that most men and women are not only unfamiliar with their pelvic floor (the area of our bodies that contains these private parts), but also the important role it plays on our quality of life as we age.
If anything, women should have a better notion of the toll that motherhood or aging can take on the body. What many don’t know is that 40%-50% of women suffer from some form of pelvic floor dysfunction and no one seems to want to talk about it. So many that suffer from symptoms of a weak pelvic floor are either left in the dark, or are simply told by the older generation that incontinence (for example) comes as a symptom of motherhood or age, leading us to accept that it is only a matter of time before the leakage protection pads end up in our shopping cart.
Pelvic floor dysfunction is NOT a normal part of aging or motherhood, although both do play their role in the weakening of the pelvic floor. The lowering of estrogen levels that occurs during menopause, and the damage endured by the muscles and ligaments during the delivery of a child (that may not demonstrate symptoms until up to 10 years post-birth) are major contributing factors to pelvic floor dysfunction. The fact is that this is an area of the body that can be effectively conditioned and maintained, but in a very specific and unconventional way.
The pelvic floor is comprised of muscles, ligaments, connective tissues and nerves that work together to form a support system that stretches from our pubic bone to our tail bone. Their basic function is to support the abdominal and pelvic organs and help control bladder, bowel and sexual function. Though pelvic floor dysfunction can affect men, it is much more common in women. When the pelvic floor deteriorates, any number of symptoms may present themselves, including bladder or bowel control difficulties, pelvic pain and, specifically in women, organ prolapse – where the organs actually descend into and/or out of the vagina or rectum. A pelvic floor that is not functioning efficiently can also lead to a wide variety of hip related injuries, back injuries, and instability problems.
The pelvic floor needs to be considered when developing a well-rounded fitness program at any age. Unfortunately most conventional abdominal and core strength workouts today are not only over-emphasized as a regular part of our exercise routine, but have actually proven to be detrimental to the often ignored muscle system – the pelvic floor. Traditional abdominal and core exercises mainly target the voluntary function of the core, yet it is the involuntary action of the trunk that is responsible for our flat stomachs and our overall performance. We rely on the peak performance of these muscles to support our movements throughout the day.
To combat symptoms of pelvic floor deterioration, doctors traditionally prescribe a strict regimen of Kegel exercises. While the ‘Kegel ’ has had some limited effectiveness in the treatment of incontinence, it offers little further benefits to the health of the pelvic floor (consider that it is a technique that was first developed in 1948). To properly condition and maintain the supportive resting tonic musculature that comprises most of our core and pelvic floor, we need to target its involuntary function and decrease pressure in the pelvic and abdominal cavities. But how can we train involuntary function, with conscious effort?
This question inspired Dr. Marcel Caufriez Doctor of Motor Function Sciences (Physiotherapy and re-education) from the University of Brussels (ULB). One of his goals was to recover the muscles’ function in this area of the body before surgery became a necessity. His exercise approach, now known as the Hypopressive Method, coordinates varying postures with a very specific breathing technique that reprograms the tonic muscles of the abdominal-pelvic cavity so they can perform as they were intended. The combination of this specific breathing pattern and physical poses creates a vacuum effect that brings the abdominals and pelvic floor unconsciously inward and upward by lowering the intra-abdominal pressure (as seen in the photo). This causes the reflex contraction of the abdominal wall and pelvic floor, and relaxes the diaphragm, contributing to an increase in overall aerobic capacity. Through the specific, conscious application of this method, these muscles are involuntarily activated and toned.
Reprogramming the core with the Hypopressive Method has a variety of benefits. Reduction in waist size is the most obvious visible change. But its most important benefits cannot be seen by the naked eye. Increased pelvic and sexual function, increased vascular performance (including vascularization to the lower limbs) and toning of the pelvic floor that can aid in the recovery from up to stage 2 prolapse and incontinence are major contributions that can result from using this exercise method.
There is no doubt that as we age, in spite of how young we may feel, our bodies will face new challenges that will require attention and maintenance. For the Pelvic Floor, we need to find safe and effective ways to train the muscles that make up the pelvic and abdominal cavities and recognize that the exercise programs that might have been safe for us at a younger age may no longer apply as we enter new stages of our lives. Furthermore, as we discover new and effective ways to address these challenges, it becomes important that we share this information, so that young and old no longer suffer in either silence or ignorance, and can be led down the road to recovery and prevention of the unwanted symptoms resulting from Pelvic Floor Dysfunction.