It can be all too easy to find reasons to skip an exercise class or turn down the chance to join a sports team. I know I do. The class runs too late or the session interferes with the little time I get to spend with kids/do the grocery shopping/catch up with the housework/relax. One thing I would never have suspected, though, was that women might be avoiding sport because of stress incontinence. But that’s exactly what one new study has found. Researchers report that women were not simply failing to turn up (which is the problem I have), but giving up a sport they enjoyed because of their fear of leaking urine. The researchers go so far as to suggest that the condition could be limiting health watch groups’ attempts to get people to exercise more.
The study looked at nearly 700 women who all took part in sports. It found that 1 in 7 women admitted to having stress incontinence, with half of them experiencing leakages during sporting activities. One third of the women said they had either given up their favorite sport or modified it in some way because of stress incontinence. The sport that caused the most problems was basketball, followed by athletics, tennis and squash.
The average age of the women in the study was 36. The researchers said that if they had asked older women about whether they had stress incontinence, the figures would have been considerably higher. Stress incontinence usually happens because muscles (called pelvic floor muscles) that help to keep the opening of your bladder closed have become weak and can't contract properly. This causes urine to leak out when extra pressure is put on the bladder, for example, when you sneeze, or laugh, or jump and run around. Stress incontinence is more common among women who have had children; other risk factors include getting older, smoking and obesity.
Many women think they have to put up with stress incontinence, and few seek advice from their doctor about it, say the researchers. But regaining control of your bladder can be relatively simple, involving neither medicines nor surgery (although these are options for some women). Kegel exercises (also known as pelvic floor exercises) help to make the pelvic floor muscles stronger and stop leaking in many women. The beauty of these exercises is that you can do them anywhere, any time—while waiting in line for a bus or watching a film. And if your find them difficult to master, your doctor or physical therapist can help.
What you need to know. If stress incontinence stops you from doing the things you want to do you, it's worth doing something about it. It's never too late to get help. Treatments can help, even if you've had symptoms for years.
—Zosia Kmietowicz, patient editor, BMJ Group
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Find out what questions you should ask your doctor if you have stress incontinence (free) and learn how to do Kegel exercises (subscriber's only). And if you use drugs to treat your bladder problems, find out how to save on with our Best Buy Drugs report on overactive bladder.