A quick glance as you drive by a park and the game in progress may look a lot like tennis. There’s a net strung across the middle of the court. A racket-like paddle is swung to hit a small ball. However, pickleball is a hybrid of many racquet sports, including tennis, badminton, and ping pong. This sport, created in 1965 and currently skyrocketing in popularity, has drawn players, buzz, and the attention of health professionals. All ages and genders have found equal standing in pickleball, with light, easy-to-swing paddles, airy whiffle balls, and rules that allow for easy play across skill and strength levels.
The average age of pickleball players is 34.8 years, considerably younger than previously assumed!
Pickleball is exploding in popularity. According to the Association of Pickleball Players, about 8.5 million Americans played pickleball at least 8 times in 2022, and a staggering 36.5 million played it at least once. That’s about 30 million more than the number of pickleball players in 2020. An article in the July 18 edition of The New Yorker magazine called it “America’s fastest growing sport” and it’s not the first publication to make the claim.
Despite the goofy name and quirks, such as dink, falafel, and kitchen, advocates say pickleball offers the health benefits of other physical activity for older populations that find many sports out of reach ― sports like tennis. Studies point to possible cognitive gains, increased agility, and decreased daily pain to be gained from pickleball. And Mike Zehner, a clinical exercise physiologist at Penn State Heart and Vascular Institute, says a game like pickleball can make all the difference in a person’s cardiovascular and mental well-being.
Cardiovascular activity like pickleball “works to help dilate your blood vessels, and this effect can last up to two hours after exercise has ended,” Zehner said. “So People are fast joining this sport’s growing participants, not simply because of the health benefits, which can be found in many other aerobic exercises, but for other reasons, too. Pickleball is easy to learn, easy to play, comes with low risk of injury, and is an enjoyable way to make new friends. It’s popular across age demographics. A small court and strict rules for serves and volleys keep the game accessible to a wide audience. The light racquet and ball also make it less of an injury risk. It’s also nuanced enough to attract athletes from all ability levels. Many know that exercise is important, but pickleball makes exercise enjoyable and attainable.
One study, coauthored by Paige Wray, Director of the Department of Home and Community at Utah State University Extension, prompted by pickleball’s accessibility, shows positive health outcomes and great potential health benefits of pickleball in rural communities, a demographic that often lacks resources and consistency for exercise. Participants in this study could jump better, experienced less pain, and noticed better brain function following just six weeks of playing pickleball.
How do you play?
You play it much like tennis. Often the game is played as doubles, but singles can play too. You smack the ball across the net to your opponents’ side. If you successfully hit the ball over the net and it bounces inside the boundaries without the other team hitting it back, you get a point. On either side of the net, a rectangle of court, called the kitchen, marks an area that players may only enter to chase a ball. After hitting the ball, they must leave the kitchen immediately. This simple rule evens the playing field dramatically, discouraging spikes and lessening the amount of movement needed to successfully play the game.
You use a lighter, smaller racquet than tennis; it almost looks like a cross between a tennis racquet and a ping pong paddle. The plastic ball is lighter, too, and full of holes. Also, a pickleball court is much smaller than a tennis court. A regulation tennis court is 78 feet long by 36 feet wide, whereas a pickleball court is 44 feet long by 20 feet wide.
Therein lies its universal appeal. It’s a blast to play, you don’t have a heavy racquet to swing, and there’s less ground to cover chasing the ball.
Is it right for me?
Despite its universality, as with any sport, un-jar your inner pickleballer with caution.
“It is really all based on their medical history and also their present activity level,” Zehner said. “If someone hasn’t been exercising it is always good to speak with their family doctor first and ask their opinion. They also need to look at their activity and if they would be able to perform that task.”
Does it help your brain?
It’s gentler than some sports, but it’s still fast. A 2021 study by the National Institutes of Health showed evidence of improved cognitive performance among people who played pickleball for six weeks.
Even without the fast-moving plastic ball, the running, jumping, and lunging helps brain function, Zehner said. “Cardiovascular exercise is extremely important in brain activity and brain health,” he said.
The social nature of pickleball also helps, he added.
A 2023 study from the National Institute of Health experimented with the idea of pickleball leading to improved mental health. The study noted the inclusive nature of the sport. Nearly anyone can play it, enjoy it, and do well with it. Playing pickleball has shown an improved mental state and outlook on life. Going for a walk on your own may have similar health benefits, but playing pickleball with a group has the added benefit of social interaction.
“Not only does it increase blood flow to the brain giving it more oxygen and nutrients,” Zehner said, “but these individuals are more likely to be around others that will increase their quality of life and mental well-being.”
Research shows that friendships and having social interactions may be as important to your health as exercising. Strong, consistent social interactions can help reduce inflammation, control hypertension, reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease, and lengthen life expectancy. According to a 2018 study published by the National Institutes of health, adults with strong social networks are 50% more likely to live longer than their peers who are more socially isolated.
Pickleball helps address two major concerns for older adults: diminishing social circles and more limited options for exercise.
Pickleball keeps growing in popularity. Courts are popping up around the country. Equipment retailers are seeing continued booming sales. This simple, enjoyable, easy-to-learn sport attracts players from all demographics. It’s good exercise, social in nature, and play it once, and you are likely to want to play again.