Bladder leaks can make it hard to exercise with confidence. Use these strategies to prevent and manage urinary incontinence during your workout.
Ever sprung to your feet during a workout only to notice you’ve also sprung a leak? It’s nothing to feel embarrassed about. About 1 in 2 women and as many as 1 in 3 men have urinary incontinence (UI), or accidental urine leakage, a condition that becomes more common with age.
Oftentimes, UI appears in the form of stress incontinence. That’s leakage that occurs when you put pressure on the bladder, such as during an exercise session. And for some people, even relatively low-impact exercise can cause a leak.
“I think a lot of people have this idea that you have to be jumping, and you don’t,” says Lauren Streicher, M.D.. She is a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University, in Chicago, and the host of Dr. Streicher’s Inside Information podcast. “There are people that go for a walk and with each step, a little drop comes out.”
A leaky bladder can be distressing for many people, so much so that it may keep them from exercising altogether, Dr. Streicher says. But you don’t have to forgo a workout out of fear you’ll leak a little. Use these tips to prevent and manage incontinence during exercise.
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1. Pick the Right Time to Work Out
People with urinary incontinence may have to go to the bathroom every few hours, says Dr. Streicher. This means you may need to be strategic about the timing of your workouts.
Maybe your bladder is less active in the morning than it is in the evening. Or maybe you’re more likely to have a dry spell during the afternoon.
Everyone is different, so try to schedule your workout for a time that you aren’t running to the bathroom every hour or so. It may help to track your urine output with journal or an app like iUFlow to get an idea of when you usually have to pee.
2. Go to the Bathroom Right Before Class
And we do mean right before your exercise class. As in, 5 minutes before it starts. The key: Give yourself enough time to fully empty your bladder — don’t just squat over the toilet and make a quick exit.
“Most people are rushed, and they run to the bathroom because class is about to start,” says Dr. Streicher. “But the truth is, they may not have emptied their bladder fully. You have to sit down and take your time. The emptier your bladder is, the less of a chance that you’re going to leak.”
One way to make sure you’re voiding properly? Don’t hover over the toilet. Yes, public restrooms can be icky, but when you squat over the seat, you can’t relax your pelvic floor enough to fully empty your bladder, according to a study published in The Journal of Urology.
Besides, other research published in August 2020 points out that it’s unlikely you’ll catch anything from a toilet seat, which is often cleaner than other things we touch every day, like light switches and handles.
You can also take a bathroom break in the middle of class. Don’t worry about interrupting anyone — SilverSneakers instructors are understanding and well-trained in the needs of older adults.
Still wary of drawing attention to your bathroom habits? Take your water bottle with you and, after refilling it, duck into the restroom.
3. Find Your Best Workout
Any exercise that puts pressure on your pelvic floor makes it more likely that you’ll spring a leak, says Dr. Streicher. This is especially true of higher-impact movements, like jumping, running, or weightlifting.
If standing workouts like cardio, strength-training, or kickboxing classes are off-limits for you, SilverSneakers also offers plenty of low-impact classes like EnerChi, Yoga Flow, and Beginner Pilates.
Bonus: These types of exercises may be just as effective at strengthening the core abdominal muscles as pelvic floor muscle training exercises, according to a study published in February 2022.
That said, if low-impact activities like walking also trigger your symptoms, you might want to try a seated workout, like Seated Strength (Express) or Seated Zumba Gold.
You can also ask your instructor for modifications to any exercises you can’t do. For example, if jumping jacks are a thing of the past, you might try touch-toe jacks instead.
Learn more about these SilverSneakers fitness classes and our other workout options here.
4. Watch What You Eat and Drink
You don’t want to go into a workout dehydrated. But try to avoid caffeinated drinks like coffee or tea before a class.
Caffeine boosts urine production, and research published in the journal Urology Annals suggests it can cause you to go to the bathroom sooner and more often.
Other foods and drinks that may make you have to pee more — or may make you feel like you have to go right now — include:
- Acidic fruits and juices (such as oranges, grapefruits, lemons, and limes)1
- Spicy foods
- Carbonated drinks
- Tomato-based products
Not everyone will have to avoid these foods and drinks before a workout. Some people may simply be more sensitive to them than others.
Try to cut back on a few of them an hour or so before a workout and see if you notice a difference in urgency. You may find you can tolerate an orange just fine, but a glass of OJ sends you running to the bathroom mid-plank.
5. Update Your Workout Wardrobe
Incontinence underwear has come a long way in recent years. Gone are the days of bulky liners and diapers. Now, there are leakage-protective underwear that are thin, absorbent, and discreet. The brand Depend, for example, makes one-use briefs for men and underwear for women that fit smoothly under your clothes.
There are also washable options. For women, there’s Thinx for All Leaks, a type of washable, absorbent underwear that looks and feels just like your regular kind.
Another option is Impressa Bladder Supports. It’s an over-the-counter product that’s inserted into the vagina like a tampon. The difference is that Impressa doesn’t absorb urine. Instead, it lifts and helps support the urethra, which prevents urine from leaking out.
One warning: “If you’re going to use a pad or disposable underwear, don’t get anything that has perfumes or additives,” says Dr. Streicher. “That can be very irritating to the vulvar tissue.”
Remember, there’s a reason why the incontinence underwear industry is a multi-billion dollar industry. There are plenty of options, they’re in demand, and they work.
Of course, no matter which type of protection you choose, there’s always the tried-and-true trick of hiding an accident: wear black pants. Just in case.
See our sources:
Tips to ease bladder problems: Mayo Clinic
Study on how many women experience incontinence: The Journal of Urology
How many men, women, and children have incontinence: Urology
Study on women’s toileting behaviors: The Journal of Urology
Link between toileting behaviors and bladder issues: The Journal of Urology
How yoga and Pilates can help relieve incontinence: Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice Link between caffeine and overactive bladder symptoms: Urology Annals
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