Hey, SuperGal, before you head out on that bike ride or hike or claim your spot in spin class, have you done what you need to do to protect your body?
Yes, exercise is great for you – for your heart and lungs, your stress levels, your bones, your brain, ALL THE THINGS – but friction, moisture, and pressure in the wrong time, place, and amount can all derail your efforts to be healthier.
To learn more about what bugs us when we’re trying to get fit, we talked to our genius PTs, Meagan and Brianna.
When skin rubs on skin or skin rubs on something that doesn’t slide very well, you can end up with some nasty chafing. Ask any athlete who whips off her sports bra and leaps into the shower, only to find when the water hits her that her bra has been rubbing her raw for the past couple of hours. There’s usually some shouting.
Friction not only hurts, it can leave us vulnerable to infection, so let’s talk about how to avoid it.
Gone are the days of cotton tees and sweat pants for exercise. Love it or hate it, our PTs tell us, Spandex and other slide-y fabrics are much better choices.
If you’re a biker, Meagan says, invest in a good pair of bike shorts that grip tightly around your thighs, yet move with you. These slide easily over your bike seat, which reduces friction. This is especially important if you’re generating a lot of sweat and spending a lot of time in the saddle.
Chamois (pronounced “sham-ee”) creams and lotions also reduce the skin-on-skin and skin-on-fabric resistance. Apply liberally, Meagan says, on the outside of any parts that get involved, including the external girl bits like the labia minora and majora. Also get the inside of the thighs, any creases or folds in the skin, anywhere your clothes rub repeatedly. “Everything needs to have the ability to slide and glide on itself rather than create friction and hot spots,” says Meagan. Oh, and do not wear underwear under your bike shorts as that nullifies the benefit.
Hint: if it burns when you urinate after exercise, you probably need more help with friction. “The acidity of urine flowing over the skin ‘in the neighborhood’ causes that pain and burning and indicates points of chafing or friction. This is potentially a risk for infection, so note the spots that burn for chamois cream next time.”
According to Bri, clothing choices aren’t just for bikers. Runners, walkers, and hikers may find that compression shorts reduce unwanted friction. You can wear your Spandex under other clothing, if you don’t feel comfortable with the skin-tight look.
Runners can tell you about the wonders of Body Glide and other friction aids: these usually come in a stick like deodorant and can be rubbed on all the spots where you normally chafe, like under bras, between thighs, around toes, and on the bottoms of your feet. They last a long time (which is why many athletes prefer it to Vaseline) and can be reapplied as necessary.
Friction isn’t the only cause of discomfort; pressure in the wrong places can be painful and lead to more serious damage.
What’s the problem with pressure? Compression in the wrong spot during exercise can reduce proper blood flow, Bri says. If your toes go numb during running or biking, that’s a good indicator that there’s pressure somewhere that shouldn’t be.
And pressure doesn’t just affect a single area. Discomfort from pressure may make you change your posture as you exercise, and getting out of proper alignment can set off a chain of painful issues.
“Pressure is another reason to invest in a good pair of bike shorts,” Meagan tells us. “They come with what’s called a chamois, which is like a big pad sewn into the crotch. It provides a cushion and absorbs friction. You want your saddle to be hard and rigid to support your pelvis, but that can be hard on the bony spots.” With a chamois built in, the bike shorts provide the cushion so the seat doesn’t have to.
Also, Meagan says, be sure your saddle fits you right. It should fit the shape of your pelvis so you’re taking the pressure on your “sit bones.” Those really big, thickly cushioned seats might look comfy for your tush, but in fact, they can make things worse by allowing too much sliding around. Not only does that cause more friction, it also reduces your efficiency as a cyclist.
Another way to fix pressure problems is to make sure your bike is fitted correctly. A good bike shop can make adjustments so your seat is the right height, the handlebars are in the correct position, the length of the bike is good for you, etc. This can make you a more efficient and powerful biker, but even more, it can help you be more comfortable and avoid pressure problems.
You want your bike seat to be level or 2 – 3° “nose down,” Meagan tells us. If it’s tilted too far forward, you’ll slide down and off, and your arms will be doing too much work to keep you in place. If it’s tilted too far back, you’ll be putting a ton of pressure on your pelvic floor muscles and tail bone, and that’s not where you want it.
The shape of your saddle should fit your “sit bones” so you’re resting on your skeleton, not counting on the hammock of pelvic floor muscles. If you sit on a hard chair, you can feel the bones you want to use, Bri says; move around until the pressure is in the right place.
Your insurance may even pay for you to get your bike professionally fitted by a physical therapist, which both of our PTs vigorously recommend. “It’s a good, proactive measure,” Bri says. “Especially if you’re going on long rides or you’re bike commuting more than a couple of times a week.”
What are you avoiding? Spending too much time on a bike that doesn’t fit can cause neck and shoulder pain, headaches, numbness in your hands from taking too much of the pressure there, numbness in your feet, tailbone or lower back pain, knee pain, possibly even carpal tunnel syndrome (PS get bike gloves if this is a risk factor for you). Some women even complain about numbness in their intimate areas.
And, Meagan adds, if you have surgery or take time off, or if you’re ramping up your training, consider that a cue to check your bike fit, especially if it’s been a couple of years.
Incidentally, everything we’re telling you here also applies to spin class. Just because your bike isn’t going anywhere doesn’t mean you’re off the hook for pressure, friction, etc. Bri suggests you spend time getting a spin bike to fit you perfectly, then record all the relevant numbers and measurements for next time.
Another thing you really want to beware of is any pressure that’s coming from the inside that shouldn’t.
Says Brianna, “If you’re experiencing heaviness in the pelvic floor or chafing at the vaginal opening, that can be a warning of early prolapse at the anterior or posterior vaginal wall. You should stop the exercise and get to a doctor or physical therapist to get equipped with a pessary or another device to support the vaginal wall and prevent chafing.”
For runners, Meagan says, “If you feel like your tampon might fall out while you’re running, that can be a clue that there’s a prolapse happening, so you want to get that checked out. Also, a menstrual cup can help with internal pelvic health during activity. They’re made of silicone or other rigid materials that slide and glide rather than absorb and cling and create friction like a tampon.”
“Moist” is no one’s favorite word, and there’s a reason for that: a lot of the time, it’s not doing your body any favors. Bacteria loves a good moist place to hang out and cause trouble, so it’s best not to give it the opportunity.
When it comes to exercise, wicking fabrics are the bomb. They may be more expensive, but it’s worth investing in a few good pieces, Bri says. Get a couple of good sports bras, shorts, shirts, socks. If you treat them right, they’ll last a long time and save you a lot of annoyance.
And finally, while you may want to spend all day in your bike shorts (HA!), resist the temptation. Sweaty moisture isn’t great for your private areas.
“Practice good hygiene after exercise,” Bri advises. “Don’t sit in your exercise clothes. Get a shower if you can, but at least wash with warm water, no soap, no scrubbing. If you’re really pressed for time, find some wipes that are OK for that area that can cleanse sweat and get rid of bacteria.”
Let’s face it, 50 isn’t what it used to be (and that’s a good thing). Many of us are staying physically active well into our middle years and beyond. To keep enjoying exercise, be sure you’re protecting your body from little irritations that can turn into bigger problems.
How do you protect your body during exercise? Have you gotten good (or terrible) advice you’d like to share with the class? Please feel free to share with the community by leaving us a comment below, or talking to us on our Facebook page or in Midlife & Menopause Solutions, our closed Facebook group.