A peer-reviewed study, published in the Journal of Aging and Physical Activity, suggests that pickleball can provide moderate exercise for middle-aged or older people. But he needs to cycle for 4.5 hours a week to meet the recommended exercise guidelines.
If you count your steps, the study shows you’ll accumulate some during an hour of pickleball, about half as much as during an hour of brisk walking.
And when the game reaches a vigorous level of activity a respectable 30 percent of the time for many players, it may not provide as much physical challenge for people who are young or already in good shape.
The Federal physical activity guidelines for Americans recommend at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity per week for adults. Moderate intensity exercise is usually defined as exercising yourself until you can talk but not sing. Vigorous exercise, on the other hand, includes more taxing exercises such as jogging, speed skating and singles tennis.
Pickleball, played with paddles and hollow polymer balls, combines elements of tennis, badminton, table tennis and rackets. Pickleball players compete in smaller arenas than tennis players; up to four pickleball courts can fit on a standard tennis court. Matches are played as best two out of three games and each game can last 15 to 25 minutes. People of all ages play, but the sport has long been associated with seniors and retirees after three men in Washington state invented it in 1965.
To find out if pickleball is as vigorous as jogging or tennis or closer to a more moderate activity like brisk walking, researchers at the University of Manitoba equipped 53 recreations. pickleball players wear smartwatches to track heart rate and accelerometers to measure steps. The ages of the participants ranged from 29 to 73, although most were middle-aged or older.
They warm up by walking or jogging around the court for three minutes at what they feel is “moderate” intensity and then practice shooting various pickleball shots for 2 to 5 minutes before the game. For at least an hour, 22 played singles, and the rest played doubles. The time includes a short break if the participant has to play on the court and wait for the court to be available.
The study found that based on accelerometer data showing the number of steps, players averaged 3,322 steps per hour, and about 80 percent of a single pickleball game was of moderate intensity. (The rest is light intensity.)
Doubles pickleball players moved less, posting only 2,790 steps per hour. During the doubles match, the participants spent only half their time in moderate intensity exercise and half in light intensity.
But reading players’ heart rates shows singles and doubles competition may provide more exercise than step counts indicate, he said. Sandra Webber, principal investigator and lead author of the study, and associate professor in the department of physical therapy at the University of Manitoba. Webber calls himself a “pickleball fan” and at age 54 play three to four times a week.
During singles and doubles play, many men’s and women’s heart rates reach about 111 beats per minute, a level that would put older adults into some moderate sports, Webber said. The participants’ average heart rate also reached about 70 percent of the maximum predicted heart rate for singles and doubles players, which meets the definition of moderate activity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Singles and doubles pickleball players spend about 40 percent of their time in the moderate heart rate intensity zone, about 30 percent in light activity and about 30 percent in the vigorous zone, indicating that with enough playing time, players can reach the recommended activity goals .
“I would say that 70 percent of the time that people are on the court, they take exercise that will count towards 150 minutes per week,” said Webber. “Based on our results, if people play pickleball for four and a half hours per week, they will meet the physical activity guidelines.”
Michael Joyner, a professor of anesthesiology and physiology at the Mayo Clinic who was not involved in the study, said he found the heart rate response most useful and would emphasize the accelerometer data. The study may confirm “what you want,” he said, “is to reach somewhere between the upper end of moderate to the upper end of vigorous physical activity,” during pickleball.
Ben Johns, 23, from Gaithersburg, Md., the world’s No. 1 ranked player by the Professional Pickleball Association for singles and doubles, said pickleball has more sudden movements and less downtime than tennis.
“Generally in tennis, you might be sprinting toward the ball occasionally, but generally, you know where the ball is going and you’re moving at a slower pace,” unlike in pickleball, Johns said. Also, the courts are smaller in pickleball and the sport often requires quick points near the net, he added.
But pickleball is not for everyone. As the sport grows, so do injuries. Webber says tendon pain in the elbows, known as “tennis elbow,” is a common injury for pickleball players. He added that “there are very serious eye injuries from being hit, usually with a ball but also potentially with a partner’s paddle in the eye.”
Webber hopes to research other potential benefits of pickleball, such as muscle strength, flexibility and bone health.
Based on his studies and personal experience, Webber remains a pickleball advocate.
“Most people if they try it, they’re hooked,” he said.
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