Picking up pickleball

Bored with your ho-hum gym routine? Crave something that stimulates both mind and body? Then pick up pickleball, an easy-to-play racquet sport that is ideal for seniors who need some exercise motivation.

“Maintaining interest is often the greatest obstacle in fitness. If it is not fun and enjoyable you are more likely to quit,” says Michael Sautter, MPT, a physical therapist with UCLA Rehab Services. “Yet an endeavor like pickleball, which combines different types of movements with a strong social component, can keep seniors engaged, which increases the likelihood they will remain an active participant.”

In many ways, pickleball is similar to other low-impact social sports, such as bocce ball and shuffleboard. But pickleball is superior in that it offers the intensity older adults need to improve their fitness, as well as address specific skills they depend on to remain active and mobile.

Sizing up pickleball

Pickleball is a hybrid sport that blends tennis, ping-pong, and the backyard childhood game of wiffleball. The game was invented in 1965, but has grown in popularity through the decades, and is now a staple at many YMCAs and senior community centers. (The story goes that its unusual name comes from the term “pickle boat” referring to the last boat to return with its catch of pickled fish.)

According to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association 2015 Participant Report, 2.46 million people play the sport. There is even a national governing organization, the USA Pickleball Association, which oversees leagues and tournaments. (You can find places to play in all 50 states at usapa.org/places-to-play-pickleball.)

Pickleball is easy to learn, and can be played both indoors and outdoors. The court is the same size as a double badminton court and measures 20 by 44 feet. Courts can be constructed just for pickleball, or converted using tennis or badminton courts. The net height is 36 inches at the sidelines and 34 inches in the middle, which makes it easier to hit over compared with a doubles tennis net, which is 42 inches and 36 inches, respectively.)

The paddles, in-between the size of a ping-pong paddle and a tennis racquet, are made of lightweight composite material, such as aluminum or graphite, which cuts down on the fatigue factor. The pickleball resembles a large, plastic wiffleball and travels about one-third the speed of a tennis ball, so it is easier to hit.

Body and mind game

Besides the obvious cardiovascular benefits, pickleball can help seniors navigate through daily life. For instance, the constant lateral and forward motions helps improve balance and weight shifting, which can lower your risk of falls. “The back-and-forth action also enhances your hand-eye coordination and reaction time, as you have to keep your eye on the ball and move your body into position to make a play,” says Sautter.

Pickleball utilizes the major muscle groups in both the upper and lower body to increase all-around strength, as well as help with trunk rotation and joint flexibility. This comes in handy with simple actions like getting in and out of a car, chair, or bed. “A stronger upper and lower body also helps you lift heavy objects, like groceries, climb stairs, and walk longer and farther with less fatigue,” says Sautter.

Another advantage is that it exercises your mind. Pickleball is a game more based on placement of a shot then covering large areas of a court. So from a cognitive standpoint, it sharpens your planning and decision-making skills as you have to constantly anticipate and execute your next shot.

As with any type of exercise, first consult with your doctor. Once you get a medical green light, Sautter recommends observing some matches to get a feel for the pace of play.

Also, do not be surprised if pickleball leads to more quality family time. “More school-age children have been introduced to the sport, so seniors may find that their grand-kids also play.” says Sautter. “It is a great way for them to share a common interest as well as get some exercise together.”


Know the basic rules of pickleball:

* Serve: The ball is served underhanded and must land in the opposite diagonal court just beyond a 10-foot area past the net called the “kitchen.”

* Return: The ball must bounce once before being returned, and again before being returned by the serving team.

* Play: Once the ball has bounced and been returned by each team, volleying may continue with or without bounces, only if participants are outside of the kitchen.

* Score: Games are played to 11, with points only be scored by the serving team.

* Win: A two-point spread wins the game. Source: www.usapa.org/rules-summary

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