Fiona McMahon PT, DPT
In honor of National Women’s Health and Fitness Day ,September 28, we are exploring the benefits of regular exercise for women as well as addressing some pitfalls (pelvic floor included), that female athletes can fall into too. It is far too often that women find themselves sidelined from their favorite sports and fitness routines secondary to issues like orthopedic or sports-related pain or incontinence. Although all the issues outlined in this blog can occur to both genders, many of these conditions are more likely to happen to females, secondary to their pelvic structure and physiology.
Exercise and Its Benefits
The benefits of exercise are too numerous to discuss every single one here and span the physical to the emotional. There are a number of conditions that have profound effects on the health of women nationwide. Let’s explore some of exercise’s specific benefits for these conditions together.
According to the American Heart Association, Heart disease is the number one killer of women in the US and is responsible for 1 in 3 female deaths. Exercise and a healthy lifestyle have been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease by 80%. The American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes of moderate activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity to stave off heart disease.
Osteoporosis is unfortunately a common affliction among white and asian urban dwelling females. It is characterized by reduced bone density, which causes bones to be fragile and increases the risk of fracture in individuals that have osteoporosis. Exercise has been shown to be helpful in both reducing the risk of osteoporosis as well as improving the bone mineral density of those who already have osteoporosis.
Other benefits of regular exercise include:
- Reduced risk of diabetes
- Reduced risk of colon cancer
- Improved psychological well being
- Maintenance of healthy body weight
Remember, it is important to consult with a trained healthcare professional before commencing a new fitness routine.
The Female Athlete Triad- Aka the Downside
All things in moderation. Although exercise is beneficial it is easy to over do it. It becomes easier to slip into an unhealthy relationship with exercise, especially in women who are training at elite levels, have eating disorders, or body dysmorphia issues.
The female athlete triad consists of three disorders that can have severe health consequences in both the near and long term. The three disorders that compose the female athlete triad are:
- Disordered Eating
- Ammenorrhea (absent periods or periods that are irregular)
The female athlete triad is often attributed to the expectation that women keep a slender appearance. Girls and women who have body image issues may be at greater risk. The female athlete triad is dangerous and has the potential to be deadly. Osteoporosis can result in fractures and eating disorders can seriously impact fertility, or even throw off the delicate balance of electrolytes in their system, putting them at serious risk for a cardiac event.
Warning signs of the female athlete triad include:
- Yellowing of skin
- Stress fractures
- Rapid fluctuations in weight
- Development of baby hair over skin
- Daily vigorous exercise to an excessive level
The female athlete triad requires a multidisciplinary approach from medical, to psychological to nutrition. It is important for someone who is suffering from the female athlete triad to seek help in order to safeguard their health and emotional well being.
Athletics and The Pelvic Floor
Like any muscle, the pelvic floor can get fatigued, strained, or even go into a painful muscle spasm. The thing about the pelvic floor muscles, is that they have to work in almost every athletic pursuit. They work in partnership with the multifidus of the back, the transverse abdominus of the belly, and the diaphragm to stabilize and protect your spine. They also contract with every step during running activities to prevent your pelvic organs from dropping down in your pelvic cavity and to prevent urinary and or fecal leakage. Things can go wrong when the pelvic floor or other core muscles don’t function properly. Athletes’ pelvic floors can become tight and restricted, preventing closure of sphincters and support of pelvic organs. They may go into spasm from working too hard to stabilize the spine, if one of the other core muscles is failing to pull its weight.
Recently there has been more work to investigate the link between athletes and pelvic floor dysfunction. A recent study found that self identified female triathletes suffer from urinary and fecal incontinence at rates as high as 37.4% and 28.0%, respectively. Similar results were also found on a group of runners. Of the triathletes studied, nearly a quarter of them fit the criteria for female athlete triad, discussed earlier in this post.
Does this mean you have to give up your penchant for running? NO! (hellooooooo the author of this post is a runner), but if you find yourself experiencing incontinence, pain, constipation, and or painful sex, something is wrong and you must intervene in order to protect your long term health and your ability to participate in your favorite sport. At Beyond Basics Physical Therapy we combine orthopedic and pelvic expertise to help return athletes to their sports in a more functional and less painful condition. We relax tight muscles of the pelvic floor, train the core, including the pelvic floor if needed, to do its fair share, and return normal postural and structural alignment to our patients. We work one on one with you to develop a home exercise plan to help you reach your goals and prevent a reoccurrence of your pelvic floor or core disorder.
Please come see us so you can return to your sport in a better and more optimal condition than when you started: http://www.beyondbasicsphysicaltherapy.com/
American College of Sports Medicine. Information on … the female athlete triad. https://www.acsm.org/docs/brochures/the-female-athlete-triad.pdf. Accessed September 19, 2016
American Heart Association. Facts About Heart Disease in Women. 2016. https://www.goredforwomen.org/home/about-heart-disease-in-women/facts-about-heart-disease/. Accessed: September 6, 2016
Bø, K. Urinary incontinence, pelvic floor dysfunction, exercise and sport. Sports Medicine, 34(7), 451-464. 2004.
Illinois Department of Public Health: Women’s Health. Facts about women’s wellness exercise . http://www.idph.state.il.us/about/womenshealth/factsheets/exer.htm Accessed: September 13 2016
Loyola University Health System. “Female triathletes at higher risk for pelvic floor disorders.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 23 August 2016. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/08/160823165743.htm>.
Stampfer M, Hu F, Manson J, et al. Primary prevention of coronary heart disease in women through diet and lifestyle. The New England Journal of Medicine. 2000; 343(1). 16- 22
Todd J, Robinson R. Osteoporosis and exercise. Postgrad Med J. 2003; 79:320-23