Kegels and cancer: How and why you should be doing them

What is a Kegel? 

One of the best ways to strengthen your pelvic floor muscles is to exercise them using Kegels. A Kegel exercise focuses on the tightening of the pelvic muscles for short intervals to build muscle strength. Much like exercising your arms or legs, if you are consistent, these muscles can get stronger and support more weight. By performing Kegel exercises, your pelvic muscles can grow stronger and help better support your pelvic organs (uterus, bladder, rectum, etc.). 

Why should I do Kegels? 

Some cancers, and even treatments used for cancer, can have side effects that weaken the muscles of the pelvic floor. This weakness may sometimes result in leaking or uncontrolled passing of urine or stool. Pelvic floor muscles can lose strength over time for many reasons unrelated to cancer, but for those with cancer it is typically related to either the cancer itself, or to the cancer treatment (surgery/radiation). This happens most commonly with cancers of the pelvic area such as the prostate, rectum, uterus, cervix, or bladder. For some individuals, performing frequent Kegel exercises to strengthen the pelvic floor can help decrease symptoms of urine and stool leakage, and even improve sexual functioning. 

How do I perform a Kegel? 

  • Find your pelvic floor muscles. Unlike working out your arms or your legs, it can be difficult to identify and tighten the correct muscles of the pelvic floor. The easiest way to identify these muscles is when urinating. After you have begun urinating, attempt to stop the urination midstream. The muscles that you use to stop urinating are the same pelvic muscles you will want to tighten when performing a Kegel.  

Pro Tip: Although stopping your urine stream is a good way to find your pelvic floor muscles, it is best not to regularly perform them when urinating so that you allow the bladder to fully empty. 

  • Practice makes perfect. Once you have found your pelvic floor muscles, Kegels can be done while lying flat, sitting, or standing. Practice tightening these muscles in a position that is comfortable for you. Tighten the muscles for three seconds and then relax them for three seconds. Repeat this cycle for 15 repetitions approximately three times throughout the day.   

  • Relax. Breath normally and concentrate on tightening only the pelvic floor muscles, not the surrounding muscles such as your stomach, legs, or buttocks. If you are performing a Kegel correctly it should not be obvious to anyone around you. 

  • Make it a habit. Consider doing Kegels at specific times each day, for example before or after each meal. Adding Kegels into areas that are already a normal routine for you will help you perform them consistently. 

  • Get support if needed. If you are struggling with performing a Kegel or not seeing the results you would like, ask your provider if you could benefit from seeing a specialist in pelvic floor physical therapy.