Just about every woman who has experienced childbirth or gone through menopause has heard of "Kegels." These simple exercises are widely used to treat and prevent urinary leaks.

What you may not realize: Kegels, named after the American gynecologist Arnold Henry Kegel, are also useful for men not just for reducing urinary and bowel incontinence but also for easing prostate discomfort and relieving premature ejaculation. Bonus: Many men and women report that these exercises enhance sexual pleasure as well.

Good news: You don't have to set aside a specific time to do these exercises. No one can see what you're doing, so you can exercise the muscles almost any time—when you're standing in line, driving your car or watching TV.

But even people who have heard of Kegels-or perhaps tried them-may not be getting all the possible benefits if they're making some common mistakes while performing the exercises.

What Goes Wrong

The goal of Kegel exercises is to strengthen the pelvic floor-a group of muscles that control urination and defecation and help support pelvic organs, such as the bladder (and uterus in women).

In women, pregnancy and vaginal childbirth can stretch and weaken the pelvic floor, leading to urinary incontinence. Women who haven't had children can also suffer from incontinence, in part because age-related declines in estrogen may weaken the urinary sphincter.

In men, urinary incontinence is usually due to prostate enlargement or prostate surgery. Prostate enlargement causes the bladder muscle to become overactive, resulting in urinary incontinence. Prostate surgery can damage the sphincter or nerves that control the sphincter.

How To Do Kegels Properly

Kegels are simple—they involve contracting and relaxing your pelvic-floor muscles. Yet many women and men make these mistakes when performing the exercises…

Mistake 1: Not identifying the pelvic-floor muscles. Some people simply can't "feel" these muscles. When contracting them, there should be no movement of the abdominal muscles and minimal movement of the buttocks. Men can see a "shortening" of the base of the penis, and women should feel a "lifting or narrowing" of the vagina.

Solution: The next time you urinate, try to stop the flow in midstream. If you can do this, you're contracting all of the right muscles. You can also tighten the muscles that prevent you from passing intestinal gas. Once the proper muscles have been located, do not do Kegels while urinating or defecating.)

If you still can't locate the muscles: A woman can insert a finger into her vagina and tighten the muscles to squeeze her finger. A man can place a finger in his anus. If he is tightening the correct muscles, he will feel a contraction on his finger.

A physical therapist trained in pelvic floor rehabilitation can also teach you where the muscles are. He/she may use biofeedback, which involves placing electrodes on the abdomen or in the vagina or anus. A machine can then monitor the contraction/relaxation of the appropriate muscles and alert patients when they're doing it right. This procedure is painless.

Mistake 2: Stopping too soon. It's common for women and men to do a few Kegels then stop.

Solution: Make sure you know how to correctly count your repetitions. To begin, squeeze the muscles as hard as you can for three to five seconds. Then relax for five seconds. This is one Kegel. Start with five or 10 repetitions. As your muscles get stronger, you'll easily be able to do 20 in a row and hold each Kegel for about 10 seconds.

Mistake 3: Not doing the exercises often enough. Until you've incorporated Kegels into your daily schedule, it's easy to try the exercises a few times, then forget about them for several days.

Solution: As with any exercise, Kegels are more effective when you do them regularly. To get the most benefit, do 10 or 20 Kegels, relax for a minute, then do 10 or 20 more. Repeat this three times daily. Be patient. It may take six to 12 weeks to see any benefits, but many people report beneficial effects earlier.

For improved sexual function: Men who experience premature ejaculation can learn to delay their orgasms by squeezing the muscles, hard, during masturbation or intercourse. Women can use Kegels to create more friction during intercourse and reach orgasm sooner.

Important: Avoid devices sold online that claim to strengthen pelvic-floor muscles-they aren't necessary and often don't work.

Natural Relief for Overactive Bladder

An overactive bladder, which typically refers n to a sudden urge to urinate, can lead to urinary incontinence in women and men. In men, overactive bladder is commonly caused by prostate enlargement or a weakened bladder sphincter.

One long-used Native American remedy: Pumpkin seeds to normalize bladder function. Now a Japanese treatment containing pumpkin seeds and soy isoflavone extract has been shown in clinical trials to help urinary incontinence in men and women.

One brand I like: LifeExtension WaterSoluble Pumpkin Seed Extract with Soy Isoflavones (800-544-4440, www.lef.org).

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