Health benefits of pickleball and aging

Ken Brummel-Smith, MD, guest column
Pam Wegley of Mount Shasta, right, during a pickleball tournament at Lake Almanor in August 2018. Submitted photo

Our population is getting older. By 2030 there will be 70 million people over age 65, and those over 85 comprise the fastest growing segment of that population. Unfortunately, too many older people are not exercising regularly. By age 75, 33% of men and over 50% of women engage in NO exercise at all. Yet exercise is by far the best medicine we have.

Exercise has been shown to prevent or treat numerous conditions, including high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, osteoporosis (weak bones), Parkinson’s disease, and even dementia.

When looking at the causes of death (called “risk factors”), Dr. Steven Blair of the University of South Carolina (who has studied exercise in older people for over 30 years, funded by the National Institute on Aging) has shown that lack of exercise contributes the greatest risk to dying from heart disease – higher than high blood pressure, smoking, diabetes, and high cholesterol.

How much exercise is needed to get health benefits? Like money, more is generally better than less, but it’s surprising that studies show that getting 150 minutes a week provides tremendous benefits, compared to being a couch potato.

So, what do exercise specialist say is the best exercise? It’s simple – the one that you will do! Research has shown that when people engage in exercise that is 1) fun, 2) social, and 3) not too strenuous, they will stick with it.

Pickleball is one such physical activity, especially doubles play. It’s very social (after all, at least 4 people are playing!) and is just enough stimulating to get the heart protecting benefits. But it also provides many other benefits that help us as we age. For instance, research has shown that for people with arthritis, regular exercise is just as powerful a treatment for arthritis as is taking medications. And there are no serious side-effects like there are for certain arthritis drugs, like stomach bleeding or high blood pressure. Balance (and falls that come from poor balance) is a serious threat to older persons. Pickleball has been shown to improve balance. Regular exercise is also effective at treating anxiety and depression, while the medications for these conditions can have serious side effects, like causing falls.

Pickleball is the fastest growing sport in the United States. While there have been hundreds of studies of tennis (its closest relative) showing high value and low risk, there have only been a few of pickleball, since it is a relatively new sport. But as a retired geriatric specialist, and avid pickleball player, I have been amazed at observing some of the folks having fun and playing pickleball well! Some with weight problems, stiff knees, poor hearing, and other problems are playing great. When I first started I regularly tried to keep the ball away from an 86 year-old man who would put it away if I got it near him.

You can learn a lot more about the health benefits of pickleball by going to:

Or you can learn first-hand by coming out to play with the Mt. Shasta Pickleball Club at the Mt. Shasta Resort tennis courts Tuesday, Thursday or Saturday from 9am to 12 noon. We would love to welcome you and teach you the game.

• Ken Brummel-Smith, MD is a retired geriatric physician who recently moved to Mt. Shasta. He was the former chair of the Department of Geriatrics at Florida State University College of Medicine, former president of the American Geriatric Society, and is a member of the Aging, Disability and Independence Forum of the National Academy of Medicine.