Urinary incontinence is an upsetting problem shared by many women, especially after menopause. Some women leak urine when they cough, sneeze or laugh (stress incontinence). Others get a sudden urgent need to go to the bathroom but don't make it in time (urge incontinence).
There are many possible causes of incontinence, but being overweight can be a factor. A 2009 study showed that losing even a small portion of your weight could improve bladder control.
How weight affects incontinence
Urine is made by the kidneys and stored in the bladder, which is like a muscular balloon. A band of muscle in the pelvis called the pelvic floor supports the bladder. Excess belly fat puts stress on the pelvic floor and the bladder and weakens them.
Compared to normal-weight women, obese women are:
- Twice as likely to have occasional incontinence
- Three times as likely to have severe incontinence
Study: Losers are winners
Experts had noticed that obese women who lost a lot of weight after bariatric surgery also had a drop in urinary incontinence. Researchers set out to see if weight loss alone could help the problem.
A total of 338 overweight or obese women enrolled in the study. All of them had 10 or more episodes of incontinence a week. Their average age was 53.
Two-thirds of the women took part in a weight-loss program, which included a low-calorie diet and exercise. The other one-third (the control group) attended 4 education sessions on weight loss, exercise and healthy eating. All of the women were given a self-help book on incontinence.
After 6 months:
- The women in the weight-loss program had lost an average of 8 percent of their weight (about 17 pounds). The women in the control group had lost less than 2 percent of their weight (about 3 pounds).
- The women in the weight-loss program cut their number of incontinence episodes by almost half (47 percent). Women in the control group had about 28 percent fewer episodes.
- Compared to the control group, more women in the weight-loss program reduced their incontinence by at least 70 percent. They were also happier with the results.
Weight loss: a modest proposal
As this study showed, you don't have to lose a lot of weight to reduce incontinence. Talk to your doctor before you start a weight-loss program. A doctor can guide you toward a plan that balances healthy eating with physical activity. A modest weight loss of 5 to 10 percent of your weight could make a real difference. For example, if you weigh 160 pounds:
- 5 percent of your weight is just 8 pounds
- 10 percent your weight is 16 pounds.
Created on 02/26/2009
Updated on 06/08/2012
- Subak LL, Wing R, Smith West D, et al. Weight loss to treat urinary incontinence in overweight or obese women. New England Journal of Medicine. 2009;360:481-490.
- American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Urinary Incontinence.
- Simon Foundation for Continence. What is incontinence?