How to handle incontinence at the gym

Don't let incontinence stop you from exercising.
Don't let incontinence stop you from exercising.

Incontinence can be an embarrassing inconvenience – whether you leak a few drops or a whole lot. But it doesn’t mean you need to stop exercising or avoid the gym. In fact, exercise can be very helpful, as carrying extra weight can weaken your pelvic floor muscles, which can lead to incontinence. 

"With stress incontinence, the sphincter pelvic muscles, which support the bladder and urethra, are weakened," pelvic floor dysfunction specialist Gail O'Neill told SheKnows.

"The sphincter is not able to prevent urine from flowing when pressure is placed on the abdomen, such as when you cough, laugh, lift something heavy, or during certain forms of exercise such as running and CrossFit."

Here are five ways to handle incontinence while working out:

1. Train your bladder

According to O’Neill, people who suffer from stress incontinence often believe that they should go to the bathroom, just in case, before working out to avoid embarrassing leaks. But this is not advisable.

She says, "Although this may seem like a logical tactic, it is signalling the brain to tell the bladder to empty before it has achieved its necessary fullness. Your bladder will prematurely need to empty more not less."

2. Use an insert

Many women find that using a tampon, even if they are not menstruating, can help prevent urine leaks during exercise. How? It puts a little bit of pressure on the urethra. You can also use a high-impact pessary, which is inserted into the vagina and helps support the urethra.

Just remember, though, that these are temporary inserts and should be removed when you have finished exercising. “You put the pessary in when you need a little extra support and take it out when you’re done with your workout,” said Dr Kristin Rooney, a urogynaecology specialist and assistant professor at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.  

woman holding tampon

3. Stay hydrated

Again, it might seem to make sense to cut back on your fluid intake but that might do more harm than good. Firstly dehydration, especially during exercise, can have dangerous results, such as developing a fever, decreased blood pressure, loss of consciousness and even organ failure. And secondly, when you are dehydrated your urine becomes more concentrated, which can irritate your bladder and cause a leak. Plus, if you do have an accident, concentrated urine has quite a strong smell that people might notice.

Just make sure you avoid caffeinated drinks, though. Because caffeine is a diuretic, it can stimulate urine production and irritate your bladder, which can cause an embarrassing leak.  

4. Find the right exercise programme

According to the Continence Foundation of Australia, “Unless you have a strong pelvic floor, avoid high-impact exercises such as skipping, running and jumping, or sports where you change direction suddenly. These activities will cause a much greater downward force on the bladder than the closure force of the urinary sphincter, risking leakage and further damage to the pelvic floor."

Instead, find exercises, such as swimming, yoga and cycling, that "help lift your chest, lengthen your spin and reduce pressure on your bladder", says Tasha Mulligan, a physical therapist and co-founder of PT Partners in Des Moines, Iowa. You can also work with a physical therapist, who will teach you how to engage all the muscles in your pelvis. 

woman swimming in gym pool

5. Wear dark clothing

If you are worried about a leak being visible, even when wearing an incontinence product, make sure your workout clothes are dark in colour. Look for clothing that is made from a slightly thicker cotton material, which can help absorb any fluid. 

women exercising in gym

Image credit: iStock

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