Forget Tennis - Pickleball Is Packing the Courts

Forget Tennis - Pickleball Is Packing the Courts
Photo by Ben Hershey / Unsplash

It’s not exactly the U.S. Open but something called pickleball is bringing Americans onto the court, paddles in hand and shoulders warmed up to slam a match-winning serve. Pickleball, which might be called slow tennis, has been around for years but has gone viral recently, especially among retirees.

In Florida, more than 15 luxurious indoor pickleball clubs are in various stages of planning and construction. In Palm Springs, California, nude pickleball has been trending in gay circles. All over the country, tennis courts are being modified to accommodate pickleball, to the annoyance of tennis addicts.

What’s not to like, adherents ask. The sport is slower than tennis, uses smaller courts and there’s generally less running around, all of which should hold down injuries and reduce coronary incidents on the courts. On the other hand, many of its most ardent fans are older, which raises the risk of injury, making insurers anxious.

“Pickleball is less strenuous and less risky than tennis, but it has an older age group that plays it, so a lot of carriers have shied away from it,” said Shawn Munns, an agent with CoWest of the Rockies Insurance Group, based in Denver, in a recent Insurance Journal article.

Insurers already get angina when they look at the swimming pools that seemingly cover most of the ground area in retirement communities, fearing that retirees and their visiting grandchildren will drown or slip on wet tiles. The thought of armies of injured policyholder pickleballers does nothing to calm them. Condo associations may soon be facing pointed questions from their insurance agents about just what kind of courts they’re hosting.

An old sport that’s new again

Pickleball is nothing new. It’s been around since the 1960s, according to the International Federation of Pickleball, but as aging tennis players sadly hang up their racquets and head for the orthopedist’s office, pickleball is taking off, with an estimated five million people now playing the sport. Most are 65 and older but the 35 to 44 age group is said to be gaining on them.

OK, so maybe the risk of injury isn’t too alarming but The Washington Post, the very model of a skeptical institution, recently questioned whether the sport can really be called exercise or whether it’s just table tennis with a bigger table. It quoted a peer-reviewed study that measured the activity intensity of singles and doubles pickleball and found that middle-aged and older players would have to play 4.5 hours per week to meet recommended exercise minimums.

Defenders of golf, another somewhat leisurely pastime, often compare it to a long walk. But the Post study didn’t even give pickleball that much credit. “If you’re counting steps, the study showed you will collect relatively few during an hour of pickleball, about half as many as during an average, hour-long brisk walk,” the Post reported.

In other words, there’s a lot of standing around and taking occasional swats at the ball, rather unlike the heroic lunges towards the net that punctuate a lively tennis match. That’s because the courts are smaller – four will fit into a single tennis court – and the balls and paddles are more like something you’d use in badminton.

On the other hand, one of the researchers involved in the study said pickleball may be a bit more vigorous than step counts alone would indicate.

Sandra Webber, a University of Manitoba researcher, said that singles and doubles pickleball players spent about 40 percent of their time in the moderate heart rate intensity zone, roughly 30 percent in light activity and about 30 percent in the vigorous zone, suggesting that with enough playing time, players could reach recommended activity goals, the Post reported.

Better than a recliner

Whatever pickleball is, one thing’s certain: it’s better than sitting around watching TV or doing the crossword puzzle. Besides some modest movement, there’s the chance for socializing, another thing everyone is constantly telling us we need more of.

A site called USA Pickleball has everything you need to know to get started. If there are no established pickleball courts in your neighborhood, you can probably find an under-utilized tennis court that’s just calling out for liberation.