Why is Pickleball so Popular?
By June DeMelo, NY Times, December 2022
Everyone and their mother seems to be playing. What’s the draw — and is it really a workout?
Now that their son is grown and their water-loving Labrador retriever has passed away, Kristen Miller and her husband, Scott Miller, have decided to fill in their San Diego swimming pool. “No one uses it, there’s a drought and we’re in our 60s,” she said. “We decided YOLO, like the kids say. We’re gonna put in a frickin’ pickleball court.”
Ms. Miller is one of over 4.8 million 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 percent between 2019 and 2021, making it America’s fastest-growing sport.
A college tennis player, Ms. Miller picked up pickleball two years ago after a friend needed to round out a foursome. Now she plays twice a week and hopes to play even more once her backyard court is complete. “We know if we have people over and we have paddles, everyone can go out and hit the ball,” she said. “Not everyone’s going to put a swimsuit on at 60.”
The sport has trended older in the past — half of all serious pickleball players (those who play eight or more times a year) in 2021 were 55 and 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 are under 24.
How is the sport able to appeal to both retirees and younger devotees? And regardless of your age, can you actually work up a sweat? Here’s what the experts say.
Most anyone can play.
Many racket sports have a steep learning curve, even at the beginner level. “In tennis, the balls are all over the place,” said Ernie Medina Jr., an assistant professor of public health at Loma Linda University and pickleball coach who was introduced to the game in 2016 by his mother.
“In pickleball, you’re hitting a plastic wiffle-like ball, so it’s less bouncy and doesn’t fly as fast through the air. And the paddle is much easier to handle because it’s shorter and lighter than a tennis racket.” You also serve underhand in pickleball, and underhand serves are easier to hit and return.
Besides being easier to learn than tennis, pickleball is also slower paced and there’s less ground to cover; you could almost fit four pickleball courts onto one tennis court, and most picklers play doubles. Some research suggests that it may be safer than tennis for people with heart issues, too.
Players can get sprains and rotator cuff pain, among other injuries. To prevent injury, players should consider doing a pregame warm-up, keep a wide ready position stance during the game, avoid backpedaling to return a shot sailing overhead and wear shoes designed for lateral movement.
As for accessibility, pickleball can be played standing or in wheelchairs, indoors or out. There are more than 38,000 indoor and outdoor courts in the U.S. To find one, use the Pickleball+ app, or put your ZIP code into the USA Pickleball Association’s court locator website. You can even use sidewalk chalk or painter’s tape to make your own court in a driveway or cul-de-sac — Dr. Medina once set up a court in the hallway of a conference venue. Then roll in 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 that’s been done on pickleball, researchers found that compared to walking at a self-selected pace for half an hour, people who played doubles pickleball for half an hour had 14 percent higher heart rates and burned 36 percent more calories. Another study from Western Colorado University found that picklers averaged a heart rate of 109 beats per minute and burned 354 calories per hour, which qualifies it as a moderate-intensity workout alongside hiking, yoga and water aerobics. The players also saw significant improvements in their cholesterol levels, blood pressure and maximal oxygen uptake, a measure of cardiovascular fitness, after playing for an hour every other day for six weeks.
“Because the paddle’s so small, pickleball is great for hand-eye coordination as well as neuromuscular coordination,” said Heather Milton, a clinical exercise physiologist at the Sports Performance Center at NYU Langone Health. “You’re moving in different planes, not just forward like you do when you’re walking or cycling, which is good for your agility. And because there’s rotation involved, you’re working your core along with your upper and lower extremities.”
What’s more, you can ramp up the intensity in a number of ways. “If you are more competitive with pickleball, you absolutely could have a more intense workout,” said Ms. Milton. Practice can also up the burn. “In a game, you have to rally, stop and reset, so there are more gaps. When I drill, I get more of a workout,” said Dr. Medina. “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 be covering more of the court, moving more and burning more calories,” said Lance Dalleck, a professor of exercise science at Western Colorado University and an author of the Colorado study. “Pickleball is not just a good workout, it’s a great workout.”
It’s easy to get hooked.
Less than a quarter of U.S. adults get enough physical activity, and that percentage decreases with age. One of the main barriers to exercising is a lack of social interaction, a big source of motivation.
But while 50 percent of people quit exercising six months after starting, research shows that picklers keep coming back to the court again and again, primarily because the game is so social. Pickleball can also improve your well-being: According to another study of picklers age 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 leisure” — in this case, playing pickleball competitively — and levels of depression.
Like Dr. Medina, I too have a (step) mother who preaches the gospel of pickleball. Last spring, my husband took a pickleball lesson while we were on vacation in Kauai, but I chose to stay in the pool. Last month, my curiosity finally got the better of me, and I asked a pickler friend-of-a-friend whether she could round up a foursome.
It was 100 degrees when we met on an August afternoon at an outdoor court in Portland, Ore. The other three women were all regulars, one of them a highly rated doubles player who made it to nationals last year. I’ve always been a decent athlete — and my father was a squash pro, so I grew up around racket sports — but besides the occasional game of cornhole, I’ve never really played anything requiring hand-eye coordination.
After about 10 minutes of warm-up hits and explanation, I had the basics down. I missed a few serves and more than a few shots once we started to play in earnest, but I was able to rally and even volley almost immediately. In spite of my inexperience — and the sunscreen-melting heat — I was soon in a flow state, punctuated by laughter and light trash talk. “Aha,” I thought, somewhere toward the end of the first match. “Now I get why people are so obsessed with pickleball.”
Being in the zone was nice, but so was victory: My partner and I won two out of three matches. But mainly I was struck by how fun the game is. (Participants in the walking study found pickleball 150 percent more enjoyable than taking a stroll.) Most points in pickleball are won on a line just seven feet from the net, so it’s easy to chat between serves. And it’s hard to take yourself too seriously when the most savage shot is called a “dink” that you hit into a zone called “the kitchen.”
“I’ve had a hoarse voice since I started playing pickleball because I’m constantly shouting and laughing,” said Dr. Medina. “I can’t even sing in my choir anymore.”
Ms. Miller said the game is so fun, you don’t realize you’re getting exercise. “It’s something you can do besides going out to eat or going out drinking.”