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Play Pickleball for Health Benefits

New research confirms that fast-growing sport improves fitness and lowers risk of depression

Two couples play pickleball, a game that's kind of like tennis and has nothing to do with pickles

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Many pickleball players are older, partly because the game offers aerobic exercise without much risk of injury.

Playing pickleball, one of the fastest-growing sports in the U.S., may ward off depression as well as improve fitness, according to two new studies on the game's health benefits.

Those findings likely will only add to the enthusiasm many people have for this oddly named sport — one that's a little like tennis, a bit like Ping-Pong, and offers a mix of moderate exercise and social connection that many say can be life-changing, especially for the older players who are attracted to it. 

A new Western State Colorado University study of 15 middle-aged and older adults found that regular pickleball playing — in this case three times a week for one hour for six weeks — resulted in improved blood pressure and cardiorespiratory fitness. The researchers, who published the findings in the International Journal of Research in Exercise Physiology, said the game's "moderate exercise intensity," combined with its "fun factor," supports it "as an ideal alternative form of physical activity" for this age group.

And a Japanese study published in the journal Leisure Studies in May focused on 153 older adults competing in pickleball tournaments and found that the "serious leisure" activity was associated with lower levels of depression. Researchers surmised that the benefit may be related to, among other things, social connections made during the games.    

It's no surprise that exercise and socialization are good for your body and mind, but picklers, as the most devoted pickleball players are called, say there’s something special about the game, which in recent years has been spreading wildly across the country. Invented in the 1950s by a group of friends in Washington state (and, according to lore, named after a pet dog named Pickles), the sport started taking off only in the past decade or so — most energetically among snowbirds in places such as Florida and Arizona — but its popularity has accelerated lately in areas that were once pickleball deserts, such as New England.

With an estimated 3.13 million people in the U.S. playing pickleball in 2017 (an increase of about 11 percent over the previous year, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association), it's become one of the fastest-growing sports. Countless municipal tennis courts are doubling as pickleball courts with the easy addition of another set of lines (pickleball uses an area the size of a doubles badminton court, 20 by 44 feet, smaller than a tennis court).

“People get addicted to it,” says Sandy Fruean, 67, a former gym teacher and pickler who successfully lobbied her Cape Cod town, Yarmouth, Mass., to add pickleball lines on eight tennis courts at a local high school last year. “If you build it, they will come!” Fruean says she told skeptical officials, and she turned out to be right.

After starting with a small cohort of about 30 players, she now has 280 picklers — their ages range from 16 to 85, but most participants are in their 60s — who go to the group of eight courts to play on different days. Fruean manages games, where players rotate into a group of four every morning and on two evenings a week. It’s been so successful, the town of Yarmouth is building 12 new pickleball courts this summer. (You can search for a pickleball venue near you on the USA Pickleball Association website.)

Many players are older, in part because pickleball offers aerobic exercise without a lot of risk of injury. Games usually last 10 to 15 minutes, so players can take frequent breathers, and since the court is small and most people play doubles, there’s no serious running — making it easier on the knees. You're also less likely to have an injury such as tennis elbow, thanks to the lightweight paddle (like a Ping-Pong paddle but larger) and plastic ball.

Betsy Heidenberger, 58, a certified tennis pro in Chevy Chase, Md., says she’s forgone tennis for pickleball because “it’s not hard on your body and it’s fun.” She's now trying to organize a league at the small tennis club where, in recent months, she has been offering pickleball clinics for beginners on the club's two pickleball courts. Heidenberger adds that once you master the quirky scoring system, the game is easy to learn. “If you’re not a good tennis player, you can still be good at pickleball.” 

As for the mental health benefits of pickleball, Fruean says those have been obvious to her for a while. “One of the best things about it is the social connections people make,” she notes, “with seniors in particular. And for people caring for a loved one, it’s like respite care. They can stop in for an hour or two to get a little break, socialize with people and get a little exercise.”

The best part, adds Fruean, is that different generations can, and do, play together. She's seen grandparents teach the game to their kids and grandkids, who love the fast-paced volleys. 

Heidenberger has observed the same multigenerational enthusiasm: “Kids walk by while people are playing and they’re like, ‘Wow, this is great.’ And it is.”

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