By the year 2030, the number of Americans over the age of 65 is estimated to reach 70 million, and adults over 85 will be the fastest growing segment of the US population. As we turn our attention to the many impacts this will have on all aspects of American society, it is increasingly important that we make those later years as vital, healthy, and enjoyable as possible. We do not want an aging population that spends the last decades of their lives sick, dependent, in pain, and unhappy.
A wide range of studies have shown that the best way to ensure health in longevity is to regularly engage in physical activity. Even moderate exercise has been shown to improve all aspects of health with virtually no negative side effects, and the body remains trainable and adaptable into the 80s and 90s. And yet, by the age of 75, 33% of men and 50% of women engage in no physical activity at all. In fact, studies show that many of the physical symptoms we associate with old age, like weakness and loss of balance, are actually symptoms of inactivity and lack of exercise.
In addition, many older people are increasingly socially isolated, and loneliness is associated with a broad range of negative health outcomes. Loneliness increases stress hormones in the body, increases blood pressure, and weakens the immune system. Isolated seniors have as much as a 64% higher risk for developing dementia over those with regular social contact. Actual or perceived social isolation has been shown to correlate to more than a 29% higher rate of mortality in the elderly.
As we look to solve the personal and social problems of an aging population, it has become clear that regular physical activity contributes to health and well-being in every aspect of life. Here are just some of the benefits:
Disclaimer: I am not a doctor nor do I play one on the internet. None of the information in this article is intended as medical advice. Before starting any new physical activity you should consult with a doctor. Some of the sources quoted below were for studies done for other racquet sports, especially tennis. We have made some general observations about the similarity between the two sports and we assume the health benefits of playing pickleball would be similar to those studied – but we make no health claims about pickleball.
Physical benefits of regular activity:
- Protects the body against certain forms of cancer
- Protects against heart disease
- Improves balance and control, reducing the risk of falling
- Increases muscle mass and bone density, reducing risk of osteoporosis
- Improves bone heath and strength, reducing the risk of fractures
- Reduces the risk of developing high blood pressure, and reduces blood pressure in people with hypertension
- Reduces risk of developing diabetes and health problems associated with diabetes
- Helps people with chronic, disabling conditions improve their stamina and muscle strength
- Helps maintain healthy bones, muscles, and joints
- Controls joint swelling and pain associated with arthritis
- Maintains and improves cardiovascular function
- Increases overall life expectancy
- Improves metabolism and helps weight control
Mental benefits of regular physical activity
- Protects against dementia
- Protects against Alzheimer’s disease
- Preserves cognitive function
- Improves memory
- Emotional benefits of regular physical activity
- Reduces symptoms of anxiety and depression
- Fosters improvements in mood and feelings of well-being
- Alleviates symptoms of depression and depression-related behaviors
- Improves the concept of personal control and self-efficacy
While there are medications, treatments, therapies, and interventions for every one of these risk factors and disease conditions, each one comes with its own potential risks, side effects, and negative interactions. Exercise is so thoroughly beneficial to every system and process in the body, the far-reaching effects are almost incredible. But it’s been proven that every system and organ in the body is sustained and improved by exercise, whether directly as a cause of that activity, or secondarily as an effect of improved heart and circulatory functions.
And exercise is integral to preserving a healthy mind, more than any medication or intervention. For most people, it is the loss of cognitive function and memory that is more troubling than physical illness or weakness associated with age; a healthy mind makes a longer life enjoyable, meaningful, and worth living.
Studies show that it is never too late for a person to begin a moderate exercise program. Physical activity in a sedentary person over the age of 50 has the same health benefits as quitting smoking for men, and eases symptoms of menopause in women. While older adults may not achieve the same physical fitness markers recognized in younger people, exercise still improves overall health, reduces disease risk factors, and improves functional capacity at any age. Most importantly, physically active older people are able to live independently and maintain their lifestyle for years longer than those who remain sedentary.
How to incorporate physical activity into your lifestyle
In order to gain the greatest benefit from an exercise routine, it should be practiced consistently. But remember, it’s not just consistency that is important, but variety.
Many of the cognitive benefits of exercise come from:
Certain activities build the connection between the body and mind and support both, helping to retain the mental agility and concentration associated with young brains, as well as boosting mood and self-confidence.
So, while doing chair-based exercises or riding a stationary bicycle is certainly healthful and far better than remaining sedentary, incorporating activities that include variety and test the brain are better for sustaining overall health.
A healthy lifestyle might include undertaking a variety of different physical activities, trying them out and seeing what you like. In the summer months, take tai chi in the park, and in the winter, learn to ballroom dance. Take up dog walking for mentally and emotionally engaging exercise, or swim at a community pool. Volunteer at an after-school program or a soup kitchen. There are a million ways to become more active and keep your body and brain working, so you keep trying different things until you find the activities you enjoy. Pickleball is considered the fastest growing recreational sport in the US and the biggest demographic playing the game are 65+ and the players over the age of 55 years old makeup almost 3/4 of the active pickleball players.
Finally, try to make it social. While you do exercise to benefit your body and brain, it’s a great way to benefit your emotional health as well. Loneliness in older people is rapidly becoming a public health concern, as lowered mood and depression along with weakened support systems cause increases in the frequency of hospitalization and length of hospital stays. Finding a group of people to regularly play pickleball or go bowling with increases the feeling of emotional support and connectedness. This sense of belonging is incredibly important for lasting well-being and good health, and being part of a healthy activity with friends is essential. Engaging in physical activity with friends makes it more enjoyable, and greatly increases the likelihood that you will continue the activity on a regular basis.
Specific Psychological Benefits to Playing Pickleball
Investigators have also taken note of the positive social aspect of pickleball. A study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology in Oct 2017 by researchers from Florida State University, the University of Georgia and Texas A&M University surveyed a total of 153 pickleball players between the ages of 51 and 85, at pickleball competitions. They found that the camaraderie among pickleball players had a positive impact on the player’s lives. The more deeply involved they were with the sport, the more likely they were to have a positive outlook on the aging process and were more satisfied with their current lives.
The Benefits of Playing Pickleball
In order to maintain or improve health, adults over 65 should make physical activity and moderate exercise part of their daily routine.
Pickleball is a good source of moderate physical activity. The ideal exercise recommendations for older adults are:
To maintain health and prevent degeneration: 150 minutes a week of moderate activity
Moderate activity improves circulation and lung function, as well as overall fitness. It can be undertaken in 20 minutes a day, or two 10-minute intervals a day. Intervals shorter than 10 minutes have reduced cardiovascular benefits
- Water aerobics
- Line and ballroom dancing
- Riding a bicycle at a moderate pace on level ground
- Playing doubles pickleball
- Canoeing or kayaking
- 2 sessions of strength training every week
Strength training improves bone health, maintains a healthy weight, and regulates blood sugar. Older adults who have been sedentary should focus on working the major muscle groups of the body, including the arms, legs, back, and abdominal muscles. Pickleball is a good option since it works both your legs and upper body (when swinging the pickleball paddle).
Using light weights or resistance bands, complete 8-12 repetitions of each muscle movement
If 8-12 repetitions is easy, increase the amount of weight or resistance, or do another set of 8-12
To further improve health and increase fitness, physical activity can be more frequent, more vigorous, or longer in duration. Examples of more vigorous activities are:
- Jogging or running
- Fast swimming
- Bicycle riding fast or on hilly terrain
- Singles pickleball
- Hiking uphill
- Martial arts
- Football or soccer
Pickleball For Seniors
Among activities recommended to improve health in older adults, pickleball has received a lot of attention. Pickleball is a popular sport and growing sport, played by almost 3 million in the US and more recently people all over the world are picking up the sport. Here’s a quick video pointing out some of the features that are attracting so many seniors to pickleball.
Tennis has a longer history and is played by many more people so it has been looked at more closely in the world of sports science compared to pickleball which only started in 1965 and only recently boomed in popularity So for well-documented examples we look to other, more long-standing racket sports, especially tennis. Most people who play tennis maintain their participation in the sport throughout their lives. For that reason, tennis has attracted the interest of researchers as a strong candidate to improve the levels of physical activity throughout the population.
According to a study published in 2007 by the British Journal of Sports Medicine, tennis has a far range of positive health outcomes scientifically demonstrated across a broad range of research. As mentioned early, we have not seen any official medical studies on pickleball. However, based on the similarities between the two sports, one can extrapolate that similar health benefits, at least to some degree, would be achieved by playing pickleball frequently.
Pickleball improves aerobic capacity.
One study proved that tennis players had higher maximum oxygen uptake, compared with normally active non-tennis playing control participants.
Another showed that in sedentary, middle-aged volunteers, playing tennis 3 times a week for 30 minutes at a time over 20 weeks improved their endurance by 5.7%. Most readers we surveyed played pickleball for longer than 30 mins, with the average playing session lasting between 60 and 90 mins.
Does Pickleball reduce obesity?
The British showed that recreational tennis players ages 23-69 who play on average of twice a week have 3.5% less body fat than age-matched controls.
Studies also show that veteran tennis players over the age of 60 are, on average, 3% leaner than non-tennis playing moderately active control participants. Although the pickleball court is smaller than a tennis court, based on the similar movements between the two sports we can assume that pickleball also helps reduce obesity albeit to a slightly lesser degree.
Does Pickleball improve hyperlipidemia?
Among a group of male senior tennis players aged 40-60+ who were compared with moderately active age-matched controls, there were no differences for overall cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, HDL cholesterol, or triglycerides. However, the tennis players overall had an average of HDL cholesterol of .21mmol greater than the controls. The 60+-year-old tennis players had an average HDL cholesterol .06mmol greater than their age-matched controls.
*HDL is considered the “good” cholesterol. Click here for an explanation of HDL vs LDL from the American Heart Association.
Does Pickleball help diabetes?
In one interesting study, a group of men and women over 60 with type II diabetes were studied as they learned to play tennis. They played with a modified ball for 90 minutes twice a week for six weeks. Over the study, there were small but significant increases in plasma insulin and c-peptide production. The mean glucose concentration in the players also fell during the course of each 90 minute session.
Does playing Pickleball have any effect on bone density and osteoporosis?
Among tennis players, the bone mineral content and bone density are greater in the hip and lumbar spine regions than in non-players, but exercise-induced bone gain is greater in younger than in older players.
Does pickleball help with overall mortality?
We’ve found no specific studies for pickleball. However, there are demonstrated correlations between playing tennis (as opposed to golf, football, baseball, and basketball) and reduced risk of heart disease and longer life. However, researchers attribute this increased longevity to the fact that tennis is played into (and often past) mid-life, unlike most other sports.
As we can see, tennis has many dramatic health benefits for players, whether they have played for decades or are new to the sport. But these exercise benefits aren’t the only reason that tennis stands out as an activity for older participants.
While all physical exercise is healthful and beneficial, tennis and pickleball have a few particular beneficial attributes:
Pickleball improves hand-eye coordination.
Racket sports, in general, have been showed to improve hand-eye coordination, especially with people that play regularly over a longer period of time. Improving coordination can have positive benefits that overflow into other aspects of life such as an overall ability to execute daily tasks and improves reaction times.
Because the ball is hit in random patterns, pickleball is unpredictable, requiring players to be attentive and responsive. This improves physical agility, balance, and overall fitness. The need for the mind to be attentive and responsive also improves cognitive function and memory
Pickleball is low-impact.
Unlike many other activities that involve jumping or repeated impact (running), pickleball is easier on the joints, making the game more accessible for older players
Pickleball is very social.
Social isolation is associated with a wide array of health risks and emotional difficulties. Pickleball involves regular, healthful, enjoyable interactions which not only alleviate isolation but make the game more engaging and encourage regular participation.
These are many of the reasons why Pickleball is an ideal source of physical activity and enjoyment for older adults. Because the game is social and fun, easy to learn and simple to play, it engages players of all ages and ability levels, paying off for decades to come.
How to start playing pickleball?
If you are an older adult who has decided to take up the sport of pickleball – good for you!
There are just a few things to keep in mind first:
If you have any existing health conditions, consult your physician. While most people are able to enjoy learning pickleball without health concerns, you may have a condition that warrants extra caution.
As with any exercise routine, build up gradually. Commit to 30-minute sessions, twice a week, and then increase the duration until you are able to comfortably complete a whole game. Doing too much too soon increases the risk of injury or discomfort that may put you off the game altogether.
Basic pickleball equipment you need to play pickleball:
In order to start playing pickleball you will need the following:
- Pickleball Shoes: A good pair of proper fitting shoes is key! A lot of people have worn tennis shoes for nearly everything BUT tennis. When starting out in pickleball, we tell people your SHOES ARE THE MOST IMPORTANT piece of pickleball equipment you’ll buy. Make sure to wear shoes specifically designed for the sport, since they will give you the extra grip and stability you need while cushioning impact and preventing injury.
We have written a complete pickleball shoe buyers guide explaining how to find the best pickleball shoes that fit along with our top picks for the best shoes.
- Wear loose-fitting, comfortable clothing that doesn’t impede your comfort or range of motion.
- A pickleball paddle (the equivalent of a tennis racquet).
The wide range of paddles, options, and price ranges can be intimidating when a player is just starting out. It’s best to choose a paddle designed for a beginner, and explore more advanced options later. Here are some of our top picks for the best pickleball paddles for beginners.
What to look for in a good beginner pickleball paddle:
- Midweight. Avoid paddles that are too light if you have tennis elbow (you actually have to swing the paddle harder because of the lightweight) but even if you don’t have “pickleball elbow” (that’s tennis elbow to pickleball players) don’t go too heavy – over time the extra ounces will wear on joints.
- Choose graphite or composite paddles, not wood. Wood paddles are cheap but really not worth the small amount of money you save. Treat yourself to a decent beginner paddles. Although there a lot of expensive “Pro” paddles on the market, you can get quality beginner graphite and composite paddles for around $40-60.
- Although you may want a paddle with a large paddle face, I would skip the blade style or elongated paddles to start.
- Have a correct grip for your hand size.
- Test the grip. Grips range from 4 to 4– 5/8ths inches. Measure from the middle line in your palm to the top of your middle finger to find your grip size. If you are between sizes, choose the smaller one and use grip tape to increase the diameter of the grip.
- Some shops and clubs will also let you demo (test play) a paddle before you purchase it.
While everyone (and certainly every dog owner) knows what a standard tennis ball looks like, you may be unfamiliar with a pickleball. Here is what one looks like. Although it looks like a whiffle ball, they are different. There are pickleball balls made specifically for indoor and outdoor play. Click here to see our pickleball ball buyers guide.
If you have a friend who already plays, of course, they can teach you. But it’s also a good idea to take lessons from a professional, particularly one who has experience with older adults. You want to develop good form and body mechanics early on before you develop physical habits that may hurt you over time.
Warm up before every pickleball lesson and every pickleball game:
Warming up your muscles and joints is crucial for everyone, but particularly for older athletes who may have lost some tone or mobility with age. Warming up properly will prevent injury and help you get the most benefit from your physical activity.
Warming up correctly involves increasing your heart rate and stretching your muscles.
A great, simple pre-game warmup for pickleball would include:
- Jumping jacks
- High-marching, lifting your knees as high as you can
- Swinging the legs forward and back, side to side, as far as you can
- Swinging the arms forward and back, side to side, up overhead, as far as you can
- Bending and stretching to the side, forward, and back at the waist
And don’t forget to stretch out again after a game. Particularly, in the beginning, gentle stretches after activity can help prevent soreness and aching from unaccustomed exercise. Static stretches, where a muscle is gently stretched and held for 30 seconds, are ideal for releasing tension, loosening muscles, and gaining flexibility after physical activity.
A post-game stretch routine for after pickleball:
- Tilt the head gently to the side, letting the ear fall toward the shoulder. Breathe and hold for 30 seconds, then repeat on the other side
- Raise the arms straight over the head and extend them back without leaning back, opening the chest and shoulders. Hold for 30 seconds, breathing deeply
- Raise one arm overhead and reach the opposite direction, bending sideways at the waist. Breathe and hold for 30 seconds, then repeat on the other side
- Stand on one leg, bending the other leg up behind you so you can reach back and grasp your foot (this may involve using a chair for balance, or a band to help reach your foot). Gently pull your foot upward behind you, extending the quadriceps on the front of that leg. Breathe and hold for 30 seconds, then repeat on the other side
- Extend one leg behind you (use a chair or wall for balance if necessary) and press your rear heel downward, stretching the calf and ankle. Breathe and hold for 30 seconds, then repeat on the other side
Here is a 2 part video showing a good warm-up stretching routine for pickleball.
Taking up pickleball is easy and inexpensive, and there are places to play in nearly every community, in the country and it is starting to grow around the world, especially in Europe and India. It’s also easy to find other players at your ability level to play, practice and socialize with. From a physical, mental, and emotional standpoint, pickleball is nearly ideal for maintaining and improving health and resilience in older adults.
Whether you want to play socially with friends or go on to compete in the wide-spread availability of pickleball competitions for seniors, pickleball can meet a wide variety of physical, emotional, and mental needs for older adults, and be fun and socially engaging at the same time. It’s no wonder that people who play the sport in youth continue to play throughout their lives. Pickleball has a special role in the lives of those who play it and may have a special role in the health of older adults who want to retain vitality and independence for as many years as possible.
Harvard Health Blog » Racket sports serve up health benefits