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Pickleball: Serving up health benefits

Written By: Shelley Vanker, UT Physicians | Updated: May 9, 2024
Pickleball scenes outdoors

Providing a cardiovascular workout, neurological benefit, and community connection, pickleball has a sports medicine physician urging patients to pick up a paddle.

Currently the fastest-growing sport in the United States, pickleball’s popularity has triggered children’s summer camps, sparked members-only clubs and competitive leagues, and influenced business ventures. America’s newest favorite game also gets two thumbs up from Andrew Li-Yung Hing, MD, as the perfect way to stay active for its range of health benefits.

Andrew Li-Yung Hing, MD
Andrew Li-Yung Hing, MD

“You don’t even need to know the rules,” said Li-Yung Hing, an associate professor in the Department of Orthopedic Surgery with McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston. “There’s some different terminology, but scoring is easy. You can really become addicted to playing not minutes but hours.”

Inspired by fun

Three fathers invented pickleball in the U.S. in 1965, trying to create a fun summer activity for their families. It was first played using table tennis paddles and a perforated plastic ball on a badminton court.  

The name was inspired by the “pickle boat” in rowing where a hodgepodge of leftover oarsmen are thrown together in one boat.

Cardio health

Like any game that requires players to be physically active, pickleball inherently provides a cardiovascular benefit – the more you sweat, the greater the reward.

“Increasing your heart rate leads to better cholesterol and blood pressure levels,” said Li-Yung Hing. “Quick bursts and short sprints with this moderate amount of exercise is a more efficient cardio workout than walking.”

Racket sports like pickleball are also great for increasing fitness, endurance, and bone strength.

“It’s probably one of the best things that you can do to involve folks who want to prevent osteoporosis,” Li-Yung Hing explained.

Hand-eye coordination

The skillset required to play is simple – holding a paddle and trying to strike a ball over a net. However, the focus required can have a significant cognitive impact.

“You can stay mentally sharp by consistently working on your hand-eye coordination,” said Li-Yung Hing. “The exercise is happening in your neurological system from the head to toe.”

Social stimulation

The game that can be played with two, three, or four players supports an atmosphere of camaraderie and bonding.

“Socializing is part of a well-balanced health routine,” said Li-Yung Hing. “If you look around the city now, you’ve got other businesses that are incorporating pickleball with food and beverage as a very big social gathering spot.”

Even off the court, there are social benefits. Li-Yung Hing points to the proliferation of online networking where legions of pickleball players can continue connecting over new paddle technology, tournament locations, and friendly rivalry.

Multigenerational allure

The health benefits of a game like pickleball can’t only be measured by physical exertion. The low-impact, noncontact sport creates a level playing field for participants of all ages.

“When you go to a pickleball court, you might easily see high schoolers playing next to retirees,” Li-Yung Hing said. “It’s just nice to see how they’re all very inclusive of each other despite different generational gaps.”

Building dynamic relationships between players of different age groups, backgrounds, and experiences deepens the roots of a community. That sense of belonging provides an invisible health benefit.

Mood booster

Nothing may lift your spirits faster than connecting with people and sharing a good time. Playing pickleball provides that outlet. 

“When you participate in something you enjoy, you stimulate those endorphins that help relieve anxiety, stress, and depression,” said Li-Yung Hing. “You might even leave the court with a euphoric feeling.”

Focus on fun

The best part of playing a game that is universally fun for players of all ages and skill levels is that it hides a moderate workout within a team-building atmosphere.

“No one thinks about the actual health benefits without first enjoying what they love to do,” Li-Yung Hing said. “Pickleball could be an exercise prescription so long as you’re healthy enough to enjoy it.”

With very little equipment or training needed, he said the game that rapidly rose to fame in the past few years is not just a new fad or quick trend and is here to stay.

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As the clinical practice of McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston, UT Physicians has locations across the Greater Houston area to serve the community. To schedule an appointment, call 888-4UT-DOCS.