Little-known fact: Men have pelvic floors too. While this system of small, internal muscles at the base of the torso is often discussed in relation to pregnancy and childbirth, everyone has a pelvic floor. It supports the bowel, bladder and reproductive organs — and in your 50s, these muscles can grow lax, resulting in bladder leakage. On the plus side, toning your pelvic-floor muscles can fix that problem and also improve sexual function — and pleasure — in both sexes.
The classic pelvic-floor exercises for moms are called Kegels; they involve rhythmically clenching the muscles that cut off your flow of urine. But for pelvic health in your 50s, these are “overrated,” according to Nora Arnold, a physical therapist and pelvic-floor therapist at Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore. Although a healthy pelvic floor needs to be strong, it additionally needs time “to relax,” Arnold says. If you overwork the muscles — for example, by habitually straining on the toilet — the pelvic floor can become too tight, which creates its own problems, says physical therapist and pelvic-floor specialist Erica Michitsch, co-owner of Solstice Physiotherapy in New York City.
So, what to do? Any significant bladder, bowel or sexual problems merit a trip to your doctor. But for a healthy 50-something who just wants to try a little below-the-belt toning, Michitsch and Arnold recommend these pelvic-floor strengtheners.
1. Diaphragmatic breathing
woman shown holding her belly and breathing in through her nose
The diaphragm, a thin parachute-shaped muscle under your lungs, “is hugely important for pelvic-floor health and function,” Arnold notes. To benefit both your pelvic floor and your nervous system, take “slow deep breaths in through your nose, letting the air gently expand your belly, inflating your whole trunk and abdomen like a balloon,” she advises. You should feel your abdominal wall relax and lengthen as you breathe in. Slowly breathe out, and repeat.
2. Plank and chaturanga
man doing a plank exercise
Holding a yoga plank position — with your body and elbows straight — simultaneously engages your pelvic floor and your abdominal muscles, which strengthens your entire core, Michitsch says. Once you’re able to hold a plank for a minute or longer, try moving to a chaturanga pose, by bending your arms.
3. ‘The Hundred’ Pilates move
the Pilates move The Hundred is illustrated
To do this basic Pilates move, lie on your back on a mat or carpet, bend your knees toward your chest, and curl up your head, neck and shoulders. Then extend your legs in a 45-degree angle to the floor and vigorously pump your arms up and down, next to your body. Inhale through your nose for the first five pumps; exhale through your mouth for the next five. If you do 10 sets of 10, that’s one Hundred.
4. Air squat
person doing a squat with their arms extended in front of them
This body weight-resistance move stretches your hamstrings and strengthens the pelvic floor by “pulling in your core and your pelvic floor,” Michitsch explains. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, then bend your knees, keeping your back straight and your heels down. The goal is to get your hips below your knees. Be careful not to hold your breath.
5. Swimming laps
woman swimming laps in a pool
The pelvic floor is governed by the autonomic nervous system, which connects it to your fight-or-flight response. When you’re stressed, you can unconsciously clench down there, Arnold says. A great way to tone your core and pelvic floor while relieving stress is in the pool, where gravity exerts less pressure. Swimming combines core muscle work and breath work, and is a major stress buster.