Strengthening the pelvic floor muscles with simple exercises is an important yet overlooked aspect of women's health, according to Dr. Sheila A. Dugan, an expert on the topic.

"Some women really never think about these muscles until they have a vaginal birth with an episiotomy that cuts through them or until they start to leak urine when they cough or sneeze as they get older," Dugan told Reuters Health.

"Incontinence is a huge problem for older women, so anything we can do early — get it on women's radar screen before it is a problem — is helpful," added Dugan, who is co-director of the Rush Program for Abdominal and Pelvic Health at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.

The pelvic floor spans from the pubic bone in the front of the body to the tailbone in the back. "Just like any other muscles, these pelvic floor muscles can get injured, out of shape, weak or painful," Dugan said. "And just like any other injured muscles, it is possible to rehabilitate these muscles to reduce pain and improve strength."

Speaking on the topic of pelvic floor health at the annual American College of Sports Medicine's Health and Fitness Summit in Atlanta last week, Dugan said there are several simple yet effective exercises women can do to strengthen and improve their pelvic floor muscles.

She suggests women practice deep breathing, with the feeling of letting the pelvic floor muscles "drop away" from the body. Spend at least 5 minutes breathing this way during the day, especially when feeling stressed or tense.

Another suggestion of Dugan's: Lie on your back and lift the pelvic muscles in and up for a count of five, then slowly lower for a count of five. Repeat several times a day if possible. This lifting and squeezing action is similar to the action taken when stopping urine mid-stream. However, Dugan does not recommend this technique while urinating. Women who have recently given birth will especially gain benefits from these exercises, Dugan said.

"During childbirth, the pelvic floor muscles stretch from teacup-sized to the size of an infant's head. This stretching and tearing requires healing and regain of function," Dugan noted in a written statement from the meeting.

Dugan is doing her best to increase awareness of this aspect of women's health.

"It would be great," she added, "for all women to think about their pelvic health before they have a problem," but if symptoms do develop, they should know "there is an evaluation and treatment program for them."