Pickleball Offers Great Exercise for Seniors


How many times have you thought about exercise and immediately dreaded the idea? Have you known that you needed to get up and move more but you were bored with the options? Walking around a track or doing the same old thing at the gym, day in and day out, can be boring enough to make you just want to stay home.

But there’s a reason the CDC recommends that seniors get at least 150 minutes of physical activity each week, as well as strengthening exercises twice per week and activities that improve balance at least three times per week.  The National Council on Aging tells us that exercise strengthens bones and helps prevent bone loss, eases the pain of osteoarthritis, helps prevent chronic disease, boosts immunity, improves mood, and even prevents cognitive decline.

So how do you get the proper amount of exercise in a way that not only benefits your body and mind but also makes you actually excited to get out of the house? A fun sport with a really weird name could be the answer!

What is Pickleball?

You might have heard about pickleball recently. The sport is suddenly in the spotlight because so many people are doing it – the New York Times says there has been a 40% increase in the number of players between 2019 and 2022. Among the almost five million players in the United States, there are about 1.4 million who play often, and 60% of those serious pickleball players are aged 55 and older.

In addition, many celebrities and professional athletes are supporting pickleball teams and leagues across the country[1]. When people like NBA star LeBron James and NFL hero Tom Brady are sinking their money into a fun new sport, people pay attention!

Sports Illustrated calls pickleball “a sport that combines aspects of tennis, badminton and ping-pong on outdoor badminton-sized courts.” According to USA Pickleball, the sport was created in 1965 by a family improvising a new game with equipment from various other sports. Specifically, they used a badminton court and net but ping-pong paddles and a small plastic ball. Pickleball caught on, and the first organized tournament happened in Washington in 1976.

Though pickleball was being played in all 50 states by 1990, the sport took time to become a national sensation. In 2003 there were only 39 known places in North America dedicated to the sport of pickleball. But by 2015, there were a whopping 12,800 pickleball courts in the United States and Canada. Today there are over 35,000 pickleball courts![2]

If you’re interested in pickleball or any other racquet-based sport, be prepared for the challenge. That includes the right equipment and the right mindset. That can also include the right mobile medical alert wireless system for you. Staying safe on and off the court is a crucial part of keeping your independence as you get older.

What’s with the Weird Name?

The name “pickleball” came from a clever thought concerning the hodge-podge of equipment used to create the first game. Joan Pritchard, the wife of one of the men credited with creating the game, likened it to the “pickle boats” at crew events. The “pickle boat” in crew races was made up of the rowing crew members who weren’t among the starters. Those in the pickle boats would often have a “just for fun” race at the regattas, where the award was bragging rights. These rag-tag groups of avid team members reminded Pritchard of gathering together the odd elements required to play the game of pickleball[3].

How to Play the Game

To play, you need a pickleball paddle, ball and net.

The paddle is a bit bigger than a ping-pong paddle but smaller and lighter than a tennis racquet. The pickleball is much like a wiffle ball in that it’s hollow with holes and is of a similar size, though a pickleball is heavier. Play happens with a single ball. The net must be 36 inches high by 22 feet wide.

Pickleball can be played as a singles or doubles game, but doubles is most common, making this a fun, social activity as well as good exercise.

Just as with tennis, one team begins the game with a serve. The serve must be underhanded and the contact with the ball must happen below the level of the waist. This can happen by dropping the ball and swinging the paddle to hit it, or letting the ball bounce and hitting it on the way up. That’s known as a “drop serve.” The serve must be made diagonally across the court.

Play from that point on is just like tennis, ping-pong, or badminton. The idea is to hit the ball in such a way that the opponent doesn’t have the opportunity to hit it back across the net.

The game is played until a team reaches 11 points, but you must win by two points. That means that sometimes the game goes beyond 11 points. Only the serving team can score points, which makes the game last longer than it would otherwise. That means more exercise!

Why is Pickleball Good for Seniors?

There are many reasons why pickleball has caught on among the senior crowd. The biggest reason is that it’s simply fun to play – and nobody wants to dread going out to get their exercise. The thrill of pickleball has made it a common sport at community centers that cater to the elderly.

Here are more good reasons why you should try it:

·         The small court is easier on your body. Unlike tennis, where you are flying all over the court to chase that ball, a pickleball court requires much less movement. The pickleball court is only 44 by 20 feet, which is much smaller than the typical 78 by 36 feet of a tennis court. That means that the ball stays in play longer but you experience less stress on the joints, including the knees, hips, and ankles. The paddle is much easier on your hands and arms than a tennis racquet, and the underhand serve is easier on the shoulder.

·         The unique ball slows the game down. Our reflexes tend to slow down as we get older. The soft, light ball used in the sport moves slowly enough that it won’t cause injury to the players, even if the ball is struck very hard. The bounce of the ball also slows down play.

·         It burns serious calories. Though pickleball isn’t as high-intensity as tennis or racquetball, it still packs a punch with weight loss. Studies have found that those who play pickleball burn 40% more calories in a 30-minute period than those who took a brisk walk[4].

·         The equipment is affordable. For less than $100, you can obtain a good pickleball racquet and several balls. That’s all you need to start and continue playing the sport. The one-time purchase is the equivalent of a few months’ of gym membership in most areas and enables players to enjoy the sport for many years. And in fact, some courts and leagues offer free equipment!

·         You can quickly get good at it. While tennis takes many years of practice to get really good, think of pickleball more like ping-pong – it takes only a few brief lessons before you’re playing at a decent level. You can start truly enjoying yourself immediately instead of stressing about whether you can compete at the same level as others.

·         It can improve your mood. In addition to the mood booster that you might get from the good social interaction of pickleball, the simple act of enjoying the sport releases the good hormones that help you stave off depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders[5]. The American Psychological Association reports that older adults who participated in pickleball tournaments showed lower levels of depression.  

·         It improves your balance. Seniors are more likely to have problems with balance[6]. Moving the body through exercise can help you be more aware of your center of gravity and where your feet are placed. This deeper awareness of your body can help you avoid stumbles and falls. As fall prevention strategies go, pickleball is a quite enjoyable one!

·         Hand-eye coordination and range of motion can improve. As you move about the court, your joints get a low-impact workout, which can affect your range of motion. Hand-eye coordination can improve as you work to make contact with the ball at various heights and speeds.

·         There are cardiovascular benefits. Racquet sports require you to move and get your heart rate up. This can help prevent issues like high blood pressure, heart attack, and stroke. A 2018 study in the International Journal of Research in Exercise Physiology found that those who regularly played pickleball saw an improvement in their blood pressure, cholesterol, and cardiorespiratory fitness.

Though pickleball is a bit slower than other racquet-based sports, it still gets you moving across the court. Those who are working to improve their balance and hand-eye coordination might worry about the potential for falls. For better peace of mind that will help you engage in pickleball and other sports that are great for seniors, consider medical alert technology to keep you safe.

As an added bonus, a medical alert watch has a built-in pedometer and weather app so you can track your steps and dress appropriately for the conditions.

How to Get Started

If you’re ready to find a pickleball court near you, visit the USA Pickleball Association website and type in your zip code. You’ll get a list of places to play in your area. Some community center and senior centers might not be listed on the official site but offer pickleball courts that have been modified from badminton or tennis courts. Call your local senior center to ask if there is a court nearby or even a league to play with.

When you are embarking on any new exercise program, speak to your doctor to make sure it’s the right idea for you. Wear proper shoes and clothing for the best experience. It’s also a good idea to consider an affordable on-the-go medical alert device. Accidents can happen anywhere, and there is always the potential for a fall when playing racquet-based sports, and an emergency button alarm ensures that help is only a button-push away. So relax, stay safe and have a great time!