Getting In on the 'Fastest Growing Sport in America'

In the summer of 1965, three dads from Washington state – Joel Pritchard, Bill Bell, and Barney McCallum – made up a game. They wanted to create something that would be fun for the whole family to play together.

So they gathered a mishmash of sports equipment from around Pritchard's home – a wiffle ball and some cheap wooden paddles – and started a game on his badminton court. They wrote the rules, which evolved over time. And they had so much fun playing that they kept playing.

Twenty-five years later, their game was being played in all 50 states.

And today, it's considered the fastest-growing sport in the U.S., with the number of players falling somewhere between 8 million and 36 million, depending on the source.

The game I'm referring to is called pickleball.

Chances are you've heard of it. And if you've never played it, you might be curious to know what it's all about.

So today, I'm going to give you a brief pickleball overview and share what some of the science says about it. Then, you can decide if you'd like to give this trendy sport a try...

What is pickleball?

Pickleball is a sport that combines aspects of tennis, badminton, and table tennis. It's played on a court that is 44 feet long, 20 feet wide, and has a net in the middle (which is 36 inches high at the sideline, and 34 inches high at the center).

Like tennis, pickleball can be played with two or four people ("singles" or "doubles"). The object of the game is to hit a perforated ball (similar to a wiffle ball) back and forth with a paddle (which looks like an oversized table-tennis paddle) and score points on your opponent.

Pickleball players – or "picklers," as they're called – have to be familiar with a unique set of terminology and game rules. Here are three short videos from USA Pickleball to walk you through the basics:

  1. What is Pickleball?
  2. How to Play Pickleball
  3. Basics for Success

What are the health benefits?

Pickleball is considered a low-impact sport, meaning that it's easier on your joints than some other forms of exercise (like running, for example). But there are some quick movements involved, like pivoting and reaching, that require coordination, balance, and a good range of motion.

A 2016 study compared the benefits of playing 30 minutes of doubles pickleball against walking for 30 minutes. The researchers found that playing pickleball resulted in higher average and peak heart rates (which is great for your cardiovascular health), more calories burned, and a higher level of enjoyment than walking.

And another small study found that playing 60 minutes of pickleball, three times a week, for six weeks led to improvements in participants' cholesterol, blood pressure, and VO2 max (which refers to the maximum amount of oxygen your body can use during exercise).

So you're getting the benefits of traditional exercise with the added benefit of socializing. (Longtime readers will recall loneliness is a major contributor to inflammation.)

Are there risks? If so, how can I avoid injury?

Lots of recent news headlines have warned about the dangers of pickleball. Like any sport, there is some risk associated with playing pickleball. And folks who are older are more likely to get hurt...

A 2021 study looked at 523 pickleball-related injuries using the emergency-room data of 100 U.S. hospitals from 2010 to 2019. The researchers found that more than 85% of the injuries happened to folks who were 60 years old and older.

The data showed that 63% of the injuries were the result of someone slipping, tripping, falling, or diving to hit the ball. The most common types of injuries were sprains or strains (33%), fractures (28%), and bruises (11%). The areas most commonly injured were the wrist (13%) and lower leg (13%).

The study also found that senior men were three and a half times more likely to suffer a sprain or strain than senior women. But senior women were three times more likely to suffer a fracture somewhere on the body, and nine times more likely to suffer a wrist fracture than senior men.

Luckily, you can prevent injuries by warming up your body with stretches. Here's a short video – led by a physical therapist – that will guide you through some pickleball warmup drills for seniors.

If you're not in great shape right now, don't push yourself too hard. Play at your own pace and gradually build up the intensity. And remember... it's a game you're playing for fun and health. While I understand wanting to be competitive (maybe even more so than the next person), try not to overdo it. The older we get, the easier our bones break and the longer they take to heal.

Keep that in mind... This way you'll avoid getting injured and can enjoy the physical and social benefits of playing pickleball for years to come.

How can I find out where to play?

If you've decided to give pickleball a go, there are more than 10,000 pickleball courts nationwide. Finding the courts closest to you is easy, thanks to the Places2Play database that's managed by USA Pickleball. All you have to do is type in your location and the site will tell you where to go.

Have some more pickleball questions, or stories you want to share? What unique ways to exercise do you want us to look at next? Send your thoughts our way... [email protected].

What We're Reading...

Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,

Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
September 12, 2023