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It’s Never Too Late to Start Pickleball

Two pickleball paddles and two pickleballs on court

Jennifer Smith / Getty Images

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 both the social and physical benefits of pickleball 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 fans of the sport that has taken country clubs, community centers, and senior living centers by storm.

While James’s wingspan covers nearly half of 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 old 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 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 popularity of the sport, healthcare providers are supportive of 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. The study showed increased cognitive ability, improved vertical jumps, and a decrease in reported pain.

Scientists are learning what the three pickleball players we spoke with already know: The game is good for the body and the mind.

An Easy Learning Curve

While pickleball was created for the whole family to enjoy, it gained popularity quickly among seniors for its simple rules and fast adoption. Sara Aiken, 62, a pickleball instructor, organizer, and founder of paddle producing company Eastport Pickleball, told Verywell that newcomers can 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 during one of their maritime journeys as licensed Coast Guard captains.

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

“Tennis has a more traditional following, but it also requires a lot more commitment,” Aiken said. “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.”

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.

SARA AIKEN, FOUNDER OF EASTPORT PICKLEBALL

An Avenue for Athleticism

Many seniors know that pickleball isn’t just fun; it’s also a good workout. At age 71, Ford Roberson plays pickleball several times a week, continuing a lifetime of physical activity that has also 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 the age of 50. He created the organization to match competitors more fairly with those in their own 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 the course of three days to give players a solid foundation for the short games.

“It’s very social; you can rest in 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 pouring themselves into the game with vigor.

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.

FORD ROBERSON, FOUNDER AND CEO OF SUPER SENIOR INTERNATIONAL PICKLEBALL ASSOCIATION

That can be an issue, however, 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 ranging from age 50 to 80, many people proceed with joint replacement procedures so that they can play the sport better with less pain.

A Social Event

John-Paul Rue, MD, of Mercy Hospital in Baltimore, is not only an orthopedic sports medicine surgeon but a pickleball player himself. He picked up the sport during the COVID-19 pandemic as a way to pass the time with his 24-year-old son.

Rue now plays with a neighborhood league that includes his 12-year-old son as well as several older neighbors. He told Verywell that the game’s social aspect is one of the biggest 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 fairly easy to keep the game in play, pickleball invites more intentional movement than chasing around tennis balls would. The more moderate pace of the game also lends itself to better longevity for players.

That’s not to say that the game is risk-free. Rue said that he sees three main injuries attributed to pickleball:

  • Shoulder injuries: 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 that can result in fractures.
  • Lunging injuries: Any lunging sport can lead to damage in the Achilles tendon or other tendons, as well as knee injuries from twisting and turning.

Despite the potential injuries, Rue said that 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 important, especially depending on the climate.

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

“Always check with your doctor 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, as well as Washington, Oregon, Georgia, Florida, the Carolinas, and the mid-East. Pickleball is primarily played on outside courts, but indoor courts are becoming more popular as well.

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.

For pickleball converts 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.