Physical activity and the pelvic floor

Am J Obstet Gynecol. 2016 Feb;214(2):164-171. doi: 10.1016/j.ajog.2015.08.067. Epub 2015 Sep 6.


Pelvic floor disorders are common, with 1 in 4 US women reporting moderate to severe symptoms of urinary incontinence, pelvic organ prolapse, or fecal incontinence. Given the high societal burden of these disorders, identifying potentially modifiable risk factors is crucial. Physical activity is one such potentially modifiable risk factor; the large number of girls and women participating in sport and strenuous training regimens increases the need to understand associated risks and benefits of these exposures. The aim of this review was to summarize studies reporting the association between physical activity and pelvic floor disorders. Most studies are cross-sectional and most include small numbers of participants. The primary findings of this review include that urinary incontinence during exercise is common and is more prevalent in women during high-impact sports. Mild to moderate physical activity, such as brisk walking, decreases both the odds of having and the risk of developing urinary incontinence. In older women, mild to moderate activity also decreases the odds of having fecal incontinence; however, young women participating in high-intensity activity are more likely to report anal incontinence than less active women. Scant data suggest that in middle-aged women, lifetime physical activity increases the odds of stress urinary incontinence slightly and does not increase the odds of pelvic organ prolapse. Women undergoing surgery for pelvic organ prolapse are more likely to report a history of heavy work than controls; however, women recruited from the community with pelvic organ prolapse on examination report similar lifetime levels of strenuous activity as women without this examination finding. Data are insufficient to determine whether strenuous activity while young predisposes to pelvic floor disorders later in life. The existing literature suggests that most physical activity does not harm the pelvic floor and does provide numerous health benefits for women. However, future research is needed to fill the many gaps in our knowledge. Prospective studies are needed in all populations, including potentially vulnerable women, such as those with high genetic risk, levator ani muscle injury, or asymptomatic pelvic organ prolapse, and on women during potentially vulnerable life periods, such as the early postpartum or postoperative periods.

Keywords: exercise; pelvic floor disorder; pelvic organ prolapse; physical activity; sports; urinary incontinence.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Age Factors
  • Exercise*
  • Fecal Incontinence / epidemiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Motor Activity*
  • Pelvic Floor
  • Pelvic Floor Disorders / epidemiology*
  • Pelvic Organ Prolapse / epidemiology*
  • Postoperative Period
  • Postpartum Period
  • Risk Factors
  • Sports
  • Urinary Incontinence / epidemiology
  • Urinary Incontinence, Stress / epidemiology*