In a pickle about what exercise to do that’s not only good for you but fun, too? Consider pickleball. Yes, pickleball—an official, if under-the-radar, sport complete with national championships and even a brand-new Hall of Fame.
The backstory: The game was invented in the 1960s by three dads, including six-term US representative from Seattle Joel Pritchard, to amuse their bored kids while summering on Washington’s Bainbridge Island. Pritchard simply grabbed what he had on hand—Ping-Pong paddles, a Wiffle-type ball and a badminton net. Bill’s wife, Joan, a rower, is credited with naming the game…after the term used to describe the slowest boat in a race, the pickle boat.
While pickleball’s popularity might have been slow to start, it’s anything but a slow sport. Pickleball is a great fitness activity, perfect for getting the heart and lungs pumping and for burning calories. For an American Council on Exercise study, researchers recruited 15 men and women, ages 40 to 85, to participate in six weeks of matches. Each one played in four 15-minute matches on each of three days a week.
They found that participants burned about 300 to 400 calories an hour, which is comparable to other aerobic exercises. What’s more, after six weeks of games, participants saw favorable changes in both high-density lipoprotein (HDL) and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, their systolic and diastolic blood pressure and VO2 max, the amount of oxygen they’re able to take in. All of this equates to a positive impact on cardiometabolic health.
Another important aspect of pickleball: It’s a social activity, offering the same positive emotional boost you get from exercise classes and group activities. Playing with friends who depend on you is also a great motivator to keep you exercising.
PLAYING THE GAME
A single game tends to last about 15 minutes—the first side to score 11 points with at least a two-point margin wins, but many enthusiasts play for as long as two hours at a time. The ability to enter tournaments makes pickleball appealing to people who are more competitive. The energy output isn’t as strenuous as some other racquet sports, yet it’s still challenging. And while you can learn new strategies to become a better player, it’s fun no matter your level of skill. Those are some of the factors that draw people to it.
The paddles are now bigger than the original Ping-Pong paddles and instead of wood they’re made of lightweight composite materials. The pickleballs still are made from molded plastic and have uniformly sized holes, but they come in more varieties now, some better suited for indoor or outdoor games or for tournament play. The pickleball “court” measures 20 feet by 44 feet—it’s far smaller than a tennis court but has similar right/even and left/odd service courts and non-volley zones. The game can be played as singles or doubles.
One caution for beginners: The researchers found that at first falling can be common while learning to play. If you have balance or agility issues, be sure to learn the proper techniques of the game with an instructor. For more ways to improve agility, read “Agility Exercises That Prevent Falling.”
While more popular in the southeastern US, you can find a court in every state. For locations, rules and more, check out the website of the USA Pickleball Association. Pickleballs and paddles are sold online from many vendors.