January is "shape-up" month, with every lifestyle magazine and website proclaiming a new exercise program. I've got a shape-up program for you, too, and though it's a muscle workout, you won't see the results in the mirror or show them off to your friends -- except for intimate friends -- and then the results will be felt, not seen.
This workout strengthens the muscles of your pelvic floor -- the "PC" (pubococcygeus) muscles that run along the pelvic floor and surround the entire vagina. These are the muscles that contract during orgasm.
Regular pelvic floor workouts, AKA Kegel exercises, lead to more enjoyable sex: easier arousal, stronger orgasms, more pleasure. If that's not enough, strengthening the pelvic floor muscles also protects against urinary incontinence. (Ah, now I have your attention!)
You've been told, "Do your Kegels," but you haven't been told how to do them most effectively. Here are step-by-step instructions for your pelvic floor workout, thanks to Myrtle Wilhite, MD, MS and staff of A Woman's Touch Sexuality Resource Center in Madison, Wisconsin:
1. Lie down on your back in a comfortable place with your knees bent. Lying down takes the weight off your pelvic floor and leads to earlier success. Have your tool (if you are using one) and lubricant with you.
- If you're using a tool, coat it with lubricant and insert it into your vagina until it comfortably slips into place just behind the pubic bone. You can't push it in too far; it cannot get lost inside of you.
- If you're using your finger(s), wash your hands first, then coat your finger(s) with lubricant. Next, insert your finger(s) about 2 inches into your vagina.
- You can also practice Kegels with nothing at all inside your vagina, or a hand placed on your perineum, to feel the muscle contract from the outside.
2. Contract your pelvic floor muscles. It will feel like you're pulling up and in toward your belly button. Don't push out, unless specifically advised by a health care provider. If you're using a tool, you should feel it rise a bit. If you're using your finger, you should feel a gentle tightening around the finger. Try to keep your leg, buttock, and abdominal muscles relaxed, and remember to breathe normally throughout the exercise.
3. Hold the lift for a count of 5. If you're using a tool, you can add resistance by pulling gently on it as you continue using your muscles to pull the tool inward and upward. Remember to breathe!
4. Relax your muscles.
5. IMPORTANT: After each contraction, take a deep belly breath. Inhale deeply and gently blow out the air while you relax your pelvis completely. This deep relaxation is just as important as the other steps, because the deep belly breath relaxes the muscles that are not under your conscious control.
For much more about Kegels from A Woman's Touch, click here.
The deep relaxation phase is often omitted when we're told how to do our Kegels, but they're as important to practice as the contraction. Many women of our age, especially after a period of celibacy, experience what feels like tightening or shrinking of the vaginal opening because the muscles don't fully release. This can interfere with our enjoyment of penetrative sex.
"Pay equal attention to the contraction and the relaxation of the muscles that surround the vagina in particular," says sex educator and counselor Ellen Barnard, MSSW, co-owner of A Woman's Touch. "Otherwise you may find that these muscles are stiff and inflexible, which will also get in the way of comfortable penetration when you are ready to have it."
You can practice with your own fingers, a partner's fingers or penis (fun for both of you!), or a sex product designed for vaginal penetration (that's the "tool" mentioned above) such as a dildo, dilator, or a special Kegel exerciser. Read an introduction to Kegel exercisers that make Kegels more effective and entertaining here.
You can also practice your Kegels without tools or fingers, even on the go: standing in the grocery line, driving, walking, working at your desk, during your Pilates, yoga, or dance class. If you're doing them in public, be sure you've mastered the part about not contracting your buttocks, or anyone standing behind you will see what you're doing!
Although I've directed this article to women, Kegels are also important for men. These muscles located in the perineum, the area between the scrotum and the anus, contract during a man's orgasm. Kegels can make sex more pleasurable for men with age-related, less intense orgasms.
"By strengthening the muscles of the perineum, you will pump more blood to this vital area, achieve greater ejaculatory control, and increase the intensity of your orgasms," says urologist Dudley S. Danoff, MD, FACS, author of Penis Power: The Ultimate Guide to Male Sexual Health (Read my interview with Dr. Danoff here.)
Kegels are recommended for all ages, and they're especially important for Boomers now and through our later years.
Kegels can be fun as well as useful. Though there's nothing sexual about the pelvic floor exercises per se, there's nothing to stop you from pleasuring yourself or your partner while you do them, or right afterwards!
Ageless sexuality advocate Joan Price is the author of Naked at Our Age: Talking Out Loud about Senior Sex and Better Than I Ever Expected: Straight Talk about Sex After Sixty. Naked at Our Age won Outstanding Self-Help Book 2012 from the American Society of Journalists and Authors and Best Book 2012 from the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists. Visit her zesty, award-winning blog about sex and aging at http://www.NakedAtOurAge.com, where Joan continues to talk out loud about Boomer/ senior sex, partnered or solo.