What Is Pickleball? The Health Benefits of the Sport
Does it seem like pickleball — the tennis-badminton-Ping-Pong hybrid — is suddenly everywhere?
The fastest growing sport in America boasts more than 4.8 million players (including TODAY’s Jenna Bush Hager and Leonardo DiCaprio). While the game with a silly name (it has nothing to do with pickles) has been especially popular with adults 55 and older, it is beginning to appeal to a younger crowd. The average age for all players dropped to 38.1 years old in 2021, according to USA Pickleball, the National Governing Body for the sport in the U.S. And the fastest growth of participants from 2020 to 2021 was among players under 24 years of age.
There are many reasons that pickleball appeals to people of all ages. For starters, it's a fun and social way to stay in shape. Matches are also played on a court considerably smaller than a tennis court, which makes for less running and a more accessible workout. But with games typically lasting an hour, you’ll work up a good sweat and burn up to 11 calories per minute. (As always, check with your doctor before starting a new exercise program.)
Related: TODAY's Savannah Guthrie opens up about how she hurt herself with a pickleball racquet while playing a game and explains the unusual way she treated the injury.
What are the health benefits of pickleball?
Phillip Adler, manager of athletic training outreach in the orthopedic department at Spectrum Health, likes that pickleball is low impact on the knees and joints. It also uses an underhand serve, which reduces muscle strain.
“It’s not without risk, but if you have rotator cuff issues or problems with your shoulders, pickleball is a good option to consider,” he told TODAY Health. "The paddle is also lighter than a tennis racket at 7 ounces."
Heather Milton, a senior exercise physiologist at NYU Langone’s Sports Performance Center, describes pickleball as an “approachable sport” that combines that benefits of cardiovascular exercise and social connections. Playing in close quarters means it’s easy to catch up with a friend — or three — if you play doubles!
“When you get on an elliptical or a treadmill, you’re moving forward the whole time,” Milton explained. “Pickleball gives you a much more well-rounded movement pattern because you are moving in multiple planes of motion and in different directions. It contributes to improving your agility, your muscular endurance as well as hand-eye coordination.”
According to Adler, pickleball activates all of the muscle groups.
"You're using your forearms, biceps, triceps — and because there's some bending over, you're also strengthening your hamstrings and quads," he said. "And you're getting your heart rate up, too."
Joan Dodds, a retired physical therapist in Sudbury, Massachusetts, plays three times a week and has introduced several friends to the game.
“It’s really easy to learn and very beginner friendly," Dodds shared. “On the other hand, if you’re advanced, it’s a quick moving sport. There’s basically a level for every person all the way up to the pros.”
Dodds added that pickleball is accessible and inclusive. All you need is a paddle — she’s seen good ones for under $50 — and a ball.
“You can play in your driveway. Just draw your lines with chalk,” Dodd said. “And if you don’t have a net, you can string a rope across two chairs and you have a pickleball court!”
Savannah Guthrie now understands what the fuss is all about. The TODAY team got together last year to play doubles and she has been a casual player ever since. “It’s just sort of an easy, accessible, fun, lighthearted sport to play, and you can play it at any age,” Guthrie declared.
She even got a bit too into it during a recent game (sustaining a minor head injury after she hit herself with the racquet), which inspired a segment this month with physical therapist David Endres, co-founder of Spear Physical Therapy, about how to avoid pickleball injuries.
His tip? Try "ghosting" before you even pick up a racquet.
“In squash and tennis, we do something called ‘ghosting,’ where you actually get on the court and you simulate the movements that you’re doing on the court, so that you have a good awareness or court perception, the awareness of your body and space and when the random movements start coming into play, you’re ready for any of that,” he said.