The Aging Well Issue

Why All Your Friends Are Playing Pickleball

Key Takeaways

  • Pickleball, a paddle-based sport that borrows from tennis and badminton, is growing in popularity among older adults.
  • Because of its small court, moderately-paced gameplay, and simple rules, the game is welcoming to newcomers.
  • Experts say pickleball's social and physical benefits outweigh the risk of injury in most older adults.

What do LeBron James and adults over 50 have in common? Apparently, their common ground is pickleball. The NBA legend recently purchased a Major League Pickleball team, joining the legions of sports fans that have taken country clubs, community centers, and senior living centers by storm.

While James’ wingspan covers nearly half the standard 20 feet of a pickleball court, a basketball player’s stature isn’t required for the sport. In fact, the ultra-accessible paddle game was created in 1965 by parents hoping to keep their teenagers entertained and is experiencing a renaissance among older adults today.

Pickleball uses bits and pieces of other sports like badminton, Wiffle ball, and table tennis. Games last roughly 20 minutes and require a player or team to earn 11 points. A typical sanctioned match is the best two out of three games.

Like tennis, games can be played as singles, doubles, or mixed doubles.

While pickleball-related injuries are rising alongside the sport’s popularity, healthcare providers support pickleball as a way for older adults to stay active. A 2021 study conducted by researchers at Utah State University found that a six-week pickleball course increased health outcomes for sedentary mid-life and older adults. At the end of the study, participants showed increased cognitive ability, improved vertical jumps, and decreased reported pain.

It’s one thing for the research to show that the game is good for the body and mind; it’s another to experience it yourself. We talked to three players over 50 about why they love the sport.

An Easy Learning Curve

While pickleball was created for the whole family to enjoy, it quickly gained popularity among older adults for its simple rules and easy learning. Sara Aiken, 62, an Annapolis, Maryland, pickleball instructor, organizer, and founder of the paddle-producing company, Eastport Pickleball, told Verywell that newcomers could feel confident enough to play within an hour or so. She was introduced to the sport in the Bahamas, where she and her husband had docked as licensed Coast Guard captains during their maritime journeys.

Since Aiken and her husband weren’t allowed to work while they were on the islands, she had plenty of time and jumped at the invitation to try pickleball. After a handful of games, she gained confidence.

She was 54 when she started playing.

According to Aiken, pickleball’s biggest lure is its simplicity.

“You can become a decent player without a lot of effort,” she said. “Even moms that have never been athletic can go out and do it, and then they’re so proud. They can do something with the kids.”

Pickleball is at once more streamlined and less rigorous than sports like tennis or badminton.

“You can pick up pickleball in about an hour, and there’s no way you’re going to be playing tennis in an hour,” Aiken said. “That’s what makes it more fun.”

You can pick up pickleball in about an hour, and there’s no way you’re going to be playing tennis in an hour. That’s what makes it more fun.


An Avenue for Athleticism

Many seniors know that pickleball isn’t just fun; it’s also a good workout. At age 71, Ford Roberson of Denton, Texas, plays pickleball several times a week, continuing a lifetime of physical activity that has included tennis, track and field, golf, and softball.

As the founder and CEO of the Super Senior International Pickleball Association (SSIPA), Roberson runs tournaments for amateur players over age 50. He created the organization to match competitors more fairly with those in their age group.

While Roberson has always been athletic, he says that even those without a sports background can excel. He runs a pickleball academy that includes five hours of instruction over three days to give players a solid foundation for the short games.

“It’s very social; you can rest between games, and you can do as much or as little as you want,” Roberson told Verywell. “It’s a tiny court, so if you’re not real fast, you can still have pretty good coverage. If you can reach to your left and your right on the court, you can cover the court, which makes it a lot of fun for people with limited mobility.”

Roberson said that once the basics are in place, success in the game relies more on strategy than physical prowess. This distinction may be part of why new players find the game so addictive, with many seniors actively pouring themselves into it.

If you can reach to your left and your right on the court, you can cover the court, which makes it a lot of fun for people with limited mobility.


However, that can be an issue when a player’s body may not have caught up with their newfound obsession.

“People who haven’t done anything in 30 or 40 years come into pickleball, and they may be overweight, out of shape, or arthritic. They have other health-related issues, and they come out here, and they overdo it,” Roberson said. “They might have a knee, hip, or shoulder injury, but I wouldn’t call them pickleball injuries. They’re injuries that were waiting to happen.”

Roberson has observed that while knee and hip replacements are common in the senior pickleball community, they don’t seem to deter many. In his experience with SSIPA members aged 50 to 80, many people proceed with joint replacement procedures that were recommended independently of pickleball in order to play the sport better with less pain.

A Social Event

John-Paul Rue, MD, of Mercy Hospital in Baltimore, is a 52-year-old orthopedic sports medicine surgeon who picked up pickleball during the COVID-19 pandemic to pass the time with his 24-year-old son.

Rue now plays with a neighborhood league that includes his 12-year-old son and several older neighbors. He told Verywell that the game’s social aspect is one of its most significant benefits.

“I think the real benefit is that it gets people back into an active social life, like tennis. But unlike tennis, the skill level is more forgiving,” Rue said. “A bunch of people can play pickleball—some who are amazingly good and some who are novices—and it can still be a fun match. If you took the same group and put them on the tennis court, the differences in skill levels are amplified.”

How to Keep Injuries at Bay

Rue said that since it’s relatively easy to keep the game in play, pickleball allows for more intentional, deliberate movements than chasing tennis balls would. The more moderate pace of the game also lends itself to better longevity for players—they can play for longer and later in life.

That’s not to say that the game is risk-free. Rue said that among his patients, he sees three primary injuries attributed to pickleball:

  • Shoulder injuries: Because of the arm motions required to serve and return the ball, pickleball players can be susceptible to rotator cuff or bicep tendonitis, as well as tears in the shoulder ligaments. Still, Rue said he sees significantly fewer shoulder injuries resulting from pickleball than from tennis.
  • Falls: Lunging and running backward for balls can lead to falls on the court, resulting in fractures.
  • Lunging injuries: Any lunging sport can damage the Achilles tendon or other tendons and cause knee injuries from twisting and turning.

Despite the potential injuries, Rue said the benefits far outweigh the risks. He recommends stretching the calves, hamstrings, and quadriceps before playing. General calisthenic exercises can also help keep players in shape and ready for anything.

Proper hydration is also essential, especially depending on the climate.

Rue’s suggestion for pickleball newbies? Ease into it.

“Always check with your [healthcare provider] and then gradually build into it,” Rue said. “If you haven’t really done anything physical in a while, at least make sure you start walking and keeping your heart rate up. If you’re on the court, jog the sidelines and do some basic stretches.”

How to Get Involved

One ramification of pickleball’s growth in the United States is too many enthusiastic players and not enough courts.

The sport is most popular in temperate climates like Roberson’s home state of Texas and in Washington, Oregon, Georgia, Florida, the Carolinas, and the mid-East. Pickleball is primarily played on outside courts, but indoor courts are becoming more popular.

Since pickleball is a very social sport, many are introduced by friends or by joining a pickup game. If you’re interested in trying pickleball, U.S.A. Pickleball offers video tutorials as well as a court finder tool, where you can find places to play in all 50 states. There are also several apps to help new players find open courts, such as The Kitchen, Pickleball FYI, PicklePlay, and Aiken’s favorite, Pickleball Connect. 

For pickleball players like Aiken, the game has not only reinvigorated her social life but has created a new community and even business opportunities. Perhaps that’s why she enjoys introducing it to new people so much.

“I love watching people fall in love with pickleball,” she said. “There’s such great innocence in it, and the thrill that they can play is very rewarding to me.”

What This Means For You

Playing pickleball is a great way to keep yourself moving without overexerting yourself. But if you haven’t worked out in a while, it’s especially important to warm up and stretch before jumping on the court.

1 Source
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Wray P, Ward CK, Nelson C, et al. Pickleball for inactive mid-life and older adults in rural utah: a feasibility study. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2021;18(16):8374. doi:10.3390/ijerph18168374

By Rachel Murphy
Rachel Murphy is a Kansas City, MO, journalist with more than 10 years of experience.