Studies show that exercises to strengthen your pelvic floor muscles can help the estimated 13 million Americans who have urinary incontinence and experts say – with the correct instruction, the exercises can be easily learned.

“We want to make sure more people know about the muscles so they can work on the exercises. That’s the most important message – that women understand this is a problem that can be treated,” says Sheila Dugan, MD, co-director of Rush University Medical Center’s Program for Abdominal and Pelvic Health in Chicago.

Dr. Dugan says women need to be better educated about how to isolate the muscles that lift the pelvis floor, which is one of the core goals of the Women’s Health Foundation. Missy Lavender, executive director of the Women’s Health Foundation, founded the group after recovering from urinary incontinence she developed after having a baby at the age of 40.

“People are stumbling around living with things not working right ‘down there,’ because we don’t have enough dialogue about this part of our body and we can’t always articulate it,” Lavender says. “The first thing to know is pelvic floor exercises, when done correctly, can help the majority of women with stress urinary incontinence.”

Lavender says one simple way to do the exercises is to lay on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. She suggests putting your hands on your buttocks to focus on keeping them relaxed and to better isolate the proper internal muscles. Then she suggests drawing your vaginal muscles up and in. Lavender says the movements should feel like you are trying to stop the flow of urine or squeezing to keep from passing gas. She says doing the exercises while listening to waltz music also can help as you work to figure out the timing.

“You need quick fixes and long holds in the pelvic floor to exercise two different kinds of muscles,” Lavender explains. “So we recommend alternating with a set of waltzes – short holds with a short rest – and then 10 squeezes for 10 seconds, once a day. One important thing with these exercises is to completely rest and relax the pelvic floor between each sustained contraction or set of waltzes. So perform a 10 second hold followed by a 10 second rest.”

Finding the “right muscles” to work can be challenging, cautions Lavender.

“In the beginning, you may have trouble locating your pelvic floor or knowing if you are properly squeezing,” Lavender says. “Don’t struggle. Find a coach like a pelvic floor physical therapist or talk to your doctor.”

“Most of all, hang in there,” she says. “People need to know that when they’re starting this kind of regimen, if they can’t hold for 10 seconds, it’s OK. Just relax in between tries and go again. And maybe tomorrow they get to four repetitions. That’s a great stating point.”

Lavender says as patients strengthen their pelvic floor, they can progress in duration and position of exercises and eventually work up to sitting and standing while doing them to really challenge the muscles.

For more information, you can visit the Women’s Health Foundation’s Healthy Pelvis Center.