by Juno DeMelo of The New York Times
Now that their son is grown and their water-loving Labrador has passed away, Kristen Miller and her husband, Scott Miller, decided to fill their San Diego swimming pool. “No one is using it, there’s a drought and we’re in our 60s,” she said. “We decided on YOLO, as the kids say. We’re going to set up a fucking pickleball court.
Kristen Miller is one of more than 4.8 million female pickleball players, or “picklers,” in the United States, according to a 2022 report from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. Pickleball, often described as a combination of tennis, ping pong and badminton, grew nearly 40% between 2019 and 2021, making it America’s fastest growing sport.
A college tennis player, Miller started pickleball two years ago after a friend needed to complete a foursome. Now she plays twice a week and hopes to play even more once her garden plot is finished. “We know if we have people and we have paddles, anybody can come out and hit the ball,” she said. “Not everyone is going to put on a bathing suit at 60.”
The sport has tended to age in the past — half of all serious pickleball players (those who play eight or more times a year) in 2021 were 55 or older, according to the USA Pickleball Association. But the vast majority of casual players are under 55, and the fastest growing segment of all pickleball players is under 24.
How can sport attract both retirees and young enthusiasts? And no matter what your age, can you actually sweat? Here’s what the experts say.
Almost anyone can play.
Many racquet sports have a steep learning curve, even at the beginner level. “In tennis, balls are everywhere,” said Ernie Medina Jr., an assistant professor of public health at Loma Linda University and a pickleball coach who was introduced to the game in 2016 by his mother.
“In pickleball, you hit a plastic ball similar to a wiffle, so it bounces less and doesn’t fly as fast through the air,” Medina said. “And the paddle is much easier to handle because it’s shorter and lighter than a tennis racquet.” You also serve sneakily in pickleball, and sneaky serves are easier to hit and return.
In addition to being easier to learn than tennis, pickleball is also slower and has less ground to cover. you could almost fit four pickleball courts on a single tennis court, and most picklers play doubles. Some research suggests it may also be safer than tennis for people with heart conditions.
“Because the paddle is so small, pickleball is great for hand-eye coordination as well as neuromuscular coordination,” said Heather Milton, clinical exercise physiologist at NYU Langone Health’s Sports Performance Center. “You move in different planes, not just forward like you do when walking or cycling, which is good for your agility. And because there’s rotation involved, you’re working your core with your upper and lower limbs.
Players can experience rotator cuff sprains and pain, among other injuries. To avoid injury, players should warm up before the game, keep a wide and ready stance during the game, avoid backpedaling to return a shot over their head, and wear shoes designed for lateral movement.
As for accessibility, pickleball can be played standing up or in a wheelchair, indoors or outdoors. There are over 38,000 indoor and outdoor courts in the United States. To find one, use the Pickleball+ app or enter your zip code on the USA Pickleball Association’s court locator website. You can even use sidewalk chalk or masking tape to create your own court in an alley or cul-de-sac – Medina has already installed a court in the hallway of a conference venue. Then roll into a portable net. A USAPA-approved set of two paddles and four balls costs about $60.
It’s a good workout (No, really)
Yes, pickleball has a low barrier to entry. But that doesn’t mean it’s a walk in the park.
In one of the few studies done on pickleball, researchers found that compared to walking at a self-selected pace for half an hour, people who played double pickleball for half an hour had a heart rate 14% higher and burned 36% more. calories. Another study from Western Colorado University found that picklers had an average heart rate of 109 beats per minute and burned 354 calories per hour, qualifying it as a moderate intensity workout alongside hiking, yoga and water aerobics. Players also saw significant improvements in their cholesterol levels, blood pressure and maximal oxygen uptake, a measure of their cardiovascular fitness, after playing for an hour every other day for six weeks.
Additionally, you can increase the intensity in several ways. “If you’re more competitive with pickleball, you absolutely could have a more intense workout,” Milton said. The practice can also increase the burn. “In a game you have to rally, stop and reset, so there are more gaps,” Medina said. “When I train, I train more. Drilling makes you better, so you can have longer, more intense rallies. It’s a double benefit.
And finally, you can play singles instead of doubles. “With a singles match, you’re definitely going to cover more ground, move more, and burn more calories,” said Lance Dalleck, professor of exercise science at Western Colorado University and author of the Colorado study. “Pickleball isn’t just good practice, it’s great practice.”
Less than a quarter of American adults get enough physical activity, and this percentage decreases with age. One of the main obstacles to exercise is the lack of social interaction, a great source of motivation.
But while 50% of people stop exercising six months after they started, research shows that picklers keep coming back to the field again and again, mostly because the game is so social. Pickleball can also improve your well-being. According to another study of sailors aged 50 and older, those who were more serious about the sport tended to be more satisfied with their lives. The same researchers found an inverse relationship between “serious recreation” — in this case, playing pickleball competitively — and levels of depression.
Like Medina, I too have a (step) mother who preaches the gospel of pickleball. Last spring, my husband took a pickleball lesson while we were vacationing in Kauai, Hawaii, but I chose to stay in the pool. Last month, my curiosity finally got the better of me and I asked a sailor friend if she could put together a quartet.
It was 100 degrees when we met on an outdoor court in Portland, Oregon. The other three women were all regulars, one of whom was a highly rated doubles player who qualified for the national championships last year. I’ve always been a decent athlete (my dad was a squash pro so I grew up around racquet sports) but aside from the occasional game of cornhole I’ve never really played anything that requires a hand-eye coordination.
After about 10 minutes of warm-up and explanations, I had the basics. I missed a few serves and more than a few shots once we started to play seriously, but I was able to pick up and even steal almost immediately. Despite my inexperience – and the heat melting the sunscreen – I was soon in a state of flow, punctuated by laughter and light chatter. “Aha,” I thought somewhere near the end of the first game. “Now I understand why people are so obsessed with pickleball.”
Being in the zone was nice, but so was winning: my partner and I won two out of three games. Most importantly, I was struck by how much fun the game provides. (Participants in the walking study found pickleball 150% more enjoyable than taking a walk.) Most pickleball points are earned on a line just 7 feet from the net, so it’s easy to chat between services. And it’s hard to take yourself too seriously when the wildest shot is called a “dink” that you hit in an area called “the kitchen.”
“I’ve had a hoarse voice since I started playing pickleball because I’m constantly screaming and laughing,” Medina said. “I can’t even sing in my choir anymore.”
The game is so much fun, Miller said, that you don’t realize you’re exercising. “It’s something you can do in addition to going out to eat or drink.”