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Pickleball: Fastest Growing Sport – Especially for Seniors

Co-authored this month with Tom Beck

Regular readers of Healthy Aging know the benefits of exercise. We won’t repeat them here, but will remind you that exercise, eating properly and seeing your physician regularly are the three keys to healthy aging.

The hardest thing about exercise is doing it regularly. There are thousands of excuses for not exercising and we all use one or more too often. One of the reasons often given not to exercise is it isn’t fun (think swimming laps, jogging around a track or on a treadmill.)

However, this is where pickleball comes in. Of all the racket sports (tennis, squash, ping-pong and badminton) the pickleball devotees who have played other sports claim it is the most fun. This, no doubt, is debatable, but there are some things about pickleball that are undebatable. 

First, pickleball has an odd name. It is derived from the sport of rowing where the slowest craft is the “pickle boat.” The sport was invented outside Seattle in 1965 and has grown steadily since that time to become an international sport with thousands of regular players. Compared to tennis, for example, this is a slow sport. 

Another asset the sport has is that the court (44 by 20 feet) is much smaller than a tennis court and this means it is easier to keep the ball in play. The fact that the ball stays in play longer by definition means that you will get a good bit of exercise in each of the 11-point games. However, the smaller court, when two people play on each side (doubles), means that most points do not require too much movement – about two to four steps. Thus the small court keeps the ball in play, but you are not over exerted during any one point.

The smaller court also means less running and less wear and tear on knees, hips, ankles – our joints. For people who have problems with these joints, but still want a racket sport to be active, then pickleball is a very good choice.

A third fact is that the ball is a soft, light object that keeps the game from being too fast for those of us with slowing reflexes. The ball is a plastic whiffle ball-like object that cannot be hit so hard that it could cause injury if inadvertently striking you or another player. It does take some adjustment to the bounce, but practice takes care of that quickly. 

The paddle doesn’t have strings and with the soft ball makes this a low intensity instrument with minimal stress on the tendons and muscles of the arms. Added to this is the fact that serving is underhand (not the overhand throwing motion of the tennis serve). This makes the game easier to play and less taxing on the arm. The rackets also range in price, on average, between $75 and $100 and balls about $2 so this is not an expensive sport to get into. 

The final relatively unique feature of pickleball is that you do not have to be the world’s most gifted athlete to play and enjoy it. Unlike tennis, for example, pickleball can be learned and played at a reasonable level quickly by almost anyone. You will see people of all ages, all physiognomy, and all athletic ability out on the courts having fun playing.

Some of the attractions of pickleball, but not unique to it, are the social aspects. Playing with one opponent (singles) or two (doubles) allows you to interact with the opponent and teammate and enjoy the exercise that all are having.

Playing pickleball and other racket sports helps with hand-eye coordination. This is something that as we age is important, since it is required for many daily activities like eating or driving. These exercises also help with balance which is under threat with age, but essential to maintain to help avoid falls. The caloric burn of pickleball for those who are trying to lose weight with exercise is somewhere between badminton and tennis.

Racket sports boost the cardiovascular system which helps prevent many of the unwanted problems of older age like hypertension, stroke and heart attack. Pickleball gives you a good aerobic workout without as much stress and strain on joints and muscles, as mentioned above. 

The endorphins and other bioamines that are released with all exercise are useful in elevating self-esteem and combating depression – both problems that can come with older age.

Who is playing this sport? You guessed it: the group that seems to have become regular players are baby boomers. The senior age group has been attracted to the sport because it is easy to play, very social and less stressful on muscles, tendons and joints. A very committed group are the former tennis players who for physical reasons can no longer play that game – but many non-racket sport players have also joined the pickleballers. Try it you might like it.