Chances are, you already know someone who’s an avid pickleball player. America’s fastest-growing sport—a cross between tennis, badminton, and ping-pong—can be played as either a singles or doubles game, though doubles is typically more popular. Points can only be accrued by the side that’s serving, and the winner is the first side to get to 11 points and be leading by at least two.
Invented in 1965 in Bainbridge Island, Washington, pickleball has gained popularity during the pandemic, growing 14.8% between 2020 and 2021. According to the 2022 Sports & Fitness Industry report, more than half (52%) of core players—those who play eight or more times a year—are 55 or older, and almost a third (32.7%) are 65-plus.
Jonathan Casper, an associate professor at North Carolina State University who has studied the benefits of pickleball for older adults, views it “as a public health tool in many ways, both for achieving physical activity and for getting the psychological and social benefits that are so important as we age.” Here’s why.
It’s a low-impact way to get moving
Part of pickleball’s appeal is that “while it does take coordination, and you have to be physically healthy to play,” it’s not that hard to learn, Casper says. And because the court is smaller than a tennis court, the net is lower, and you play with a plastic wiffle ball, “it doesn’t take too much out of your body,” says Arthur Kreiswirth, 80, a retired dentist in New Rochelle, N.Y., who started playing five years ago. “The running is in short sprints and the impact of smacking the ball is minimal, so it’s easier on the joints.”
But pickleball is still a great workout. In a 2016 study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 12 middle-aged players burned 40% more calories during a 30-minute pickleball game than during 30 minutes of walking, increasing their heart rates to within the moderate-intensity exercise zone. A small six-week study of 15 people ages 40 to 85 who played an hour of pickleball three days a week showed improvements in cholesterol, blood pressure, and cardiorespiratory fitness.
Plus, regular practice can help improve balance, which is important in preventing falls as you age. Because pickleball requires both hand-eye and foot coordination, says Casper, “your balance, your movement, and your coordination all get better as you play more.”
It’s an avenue to socialization
Research has shown that social isolation is associated with an increased risk of dementia, depression, and premature death. Yet, without work or school-aged kids, it can be hard to make friends as an older adult.
Enter pickleball, which Janet Niehaus, 68, a retired teacher in Easley, S.C., describes as “my socialization.” In the rotating group of 18 people she plays with twice a week, “we stand around and talk as much as we play.” In a recent study of 36 pickleball players over the age of 65, published in World Leisure Journal, those who maintained the social connections they’d made through the sport by continuing to play through the pandemic months of 2020 reported improved life satisfaction.
Pickleball’s widening appeal—the average player’s age is 38, an almost three-year decrease from 2020—means you meet people you might not hang out with otherwise, says Erin McHugh, 70, author of Pickleball Is Life: The Complete Guide to Feeding Your Obsession.
“As I grow older, I’m a big proponent of having friends of every age and different walks of life,” says McHugh, who plays daily with other devotees ranging from age 15 to 92. “It keeps you tuned in to what’s out there.”
Courts have sprung up at community centers, YMCAs, and tennis clubs; search the Places 2 Play database to find a court nearby. And if you’ve got the space, you can even lay out your own pickleball court at home.
It gives you something to get better at
In his research into the psychological connection between pickleball and older adults, Casper found that the competition inherent to pickleball—rare in other “senior-friendly” activities like walking or Zumba—was a major draw. When Kreiswirth started playing at 75, “I was paired with a 92-year-old, and he could stroke as well as anyone,” he says. “I thought, ‘Well, if he can do it, I can.’ It pumped me up to keep playing.”
A 2018 study of 153 people who compete in pickleball tournaments found that playing pickleball is significantly related to a low level of depression in older adults. For retirees, pickleball can help restore a sense of purpose after leaving the working world, says Casper. “People start to form an identity as they play more and more,” he explains. “The fact that they’re able to continue to get better, that they’re able to compete and to have that satisfaction of winning contributes to their quality of life in many ways.”
And when it comes to skill mastery, says McHugh, the sky’s the limit. “You can always improve at pickleball,” she says. “That’s so satisfying! How many things are going to be like that when you’re 70?”
It keeps your brain sharp
Kathy Jaray, 70, who plays six times a week in Encinitas, Calif., says it’s not just the physical exercise that has her “pretty hooked,” it’s also the mental workout. “Some people could care less about strategy and just want to hit the ball, but for me, it makes for a more interesting game,” she says.
While power and strength are helpful, “if you know the right placement, if you know where your opponents are positioned, if you have the right strategy, you can be just as good as—if not better than—those who are physically more superior and athletic than you,” Casper says.
The confidence boost Kreiswirth gets from playing pickleball is huge.
“It has helped me so much with my vision of myself,” he says. “Yes, I’m in good shape for an 80-year-old, but there is an end in sight, and I do not want to crawl to that end. Pickleball has given me a way to be active for a couple of hours, break a sweat, and feel really good about myself.”