Sucking in your stomach, waiting to use the bathroom: Here are 7 things pelvic floor health expert Sara Reardon wants you to stop doing

Health expert Sara Reardon
Health therapist Sara Reardon discusses the mistakes people make when it comes to their pelvic floor. (Photo illustration: Blake Cale for Yahoo News; photos: Sara Reardon, Getty Images)

There may be a whole month dedicated to pelvic pain, but generally speaking, the pelvic floor — as in, the muscles and connective tissue that stabilize the core and come into play during sex, peeing and pooping — aren’t something people spend a lot of time talking about. “Nobody’s like, ‘Look at my new pelvic floor workout,’” Sara Reardon tells Yahoo Life. But as a pelvic floor health therapist and doctor of physical therapy who is known as “the Vagina Whisperer” on social media, where her more than 600,000 Instagram followers include Kaley Cuoco and Michelle Branch, Reardon makes her living discussing bladder and bowel issues, strengthening exercises, painful intercourse, postpartum recovery and other topics relevant to the pelvic floor.

According to Reardon, it's common for people (primarily women) to experience pelvic floor pain and other pelvic health issues. The pelvic floor, which supports the bladder, the bowels and uterus, tends to weaken with age or as a result of pregnancy or childbirth (even in the event of a C-section, Reardon points out), but keeping it strong and healthy is seldom made a priority, she says. Most people’s attitude is “oh, let’s just deal with it later.”

In the meantime, there are everyday things we might be doing that further affects our pelvic floor. That’s something that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later.

“It doesn’t get better, it only gets worse,” Reardon says. “Our hormones start changing, you start having more weakness with aging. … We kind of have to worry about these things now, because it doesn’t get better, especially after menopause.”

So what mistakes might you be making, and how can you get your pelvic health back on track? Here’s what Reardon suggests.

Reardon calls this “power peeing” and it’s something you might do in an effort to fully empty your bladder. Doing this, however, weakens the pelvic floor. “[You] can just sit and chill because your bladder is a muscle that pushes pee out for you,” Reardon explains. “You just need to relax your pelvic floor.”

Parents who have gone through potty training might remember this lesson: Squatting with the knees above the hips is an effective way to get things moving. As Reardon puts it, this “is the best position to relax your pelvic floor” and avoid straining during bowel movements. A stool — Reardon recommends those sold by Squatty Potty — or, in a pinch, a trash can turned sideways, can help you get into position. Just “lift your heels and lean forward,” Reardon says.

You might feel tempted to make one last trip to the bathroom before leaving the house or going to bed. But if you don’t actually need to pee right then, it can become a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy, according to Reardon, who says that the normal frequency to pee is every two to four hours during the day and up to two times at night. Going “just in case” — maybe you’re worried about not having access to a bathroom later, or don’t want to get up during the night — can cause the bladder to get smaller and therefore make you need to pee more frequently.

While you don’t want to force yourself to use the bathroom when you don’t really need to, holding it in when you actually do can cause problems. “If you are constantly tightening your pelvic floor to delay the urge,” Reardon explains, “it can lead to too much pelvic floor muscle tension, making it difficult to start your urine stream, empty your bladder completely or poop without straining. It can even lead to painful sex.” Bottom line: If you truly have the urge to go, go — don’t try to hold it.

If you tend to suck in your stomach — also known as “stomach gripping” — to look slimmer, you should stop. Because the pelvic floor is part of our core, pulling the lower abs in can cause it to tighten and, Reardon explains, result in chronic tension or pelvic floor spasms. “Your muscles are supposed to contract and then relax,” she says. “So stop sucking in.”

Accidents happen — but urine leakage should be taken seriously, according to Reardon. “It may start with a small leak with a cough or sneeze, or avoiding the trampoline workout class,” she says, adding that, in a pinch, inserting a tampon to support the pelvic walls will help prevent the bladder from moving during a coughing spell. “But these small leaks can turn into bigger problems as we age due to hormonal changes like decreased estrogen and losing muscle mass with aging.” If you’re experiencing leaks, raise the issue with your doctor or consult with a pelvic floor therapist.

Kegel exercises, also known as pelvic floor exercises, are contractions that assist in strengthening your pelvic floor muscles. While they can be beneficial to do as women age, especially through perimenopause and menopause, Reardon warns that if you’re having pelvic floor dysfunction such as tension or spasms, “Kegels can actually make your condition worse.” In that situation, “you should in fact be working on pelvic floor relaxation and not strengthening,” she says.