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What is Pickleball? | Benefits of Pickleball for Health and Fitness

Caitlin Updyke, MS, RD

Published in Fitness

7 min read

June 30, 2023
someone playing pickleball
someone playing pickleball

Chances are, you’ve heard the term “pickleball” pop up at least once over the last few years. But why has this sport suddenly become so popular?

From humble beginnings in 1965 as a summertime diversion, pickleball has quickly become one of the fastest growing sports in the U.S. It’s now even a professional sport and has a governing body called the USA Pickleball Association.

Pickleball is more than just a game for kids: it’s a fun, engaging sport that can be as competitive, or as casual, as you wish. But not only that, pickleball also happens to be a superb cardio exercise for people of all ages and fitness levels. 

So what is pickleball, exactly? And what makes this such a great, multi-faceted workout? Find out some of the top health benefits of pickleball here.

What is Pickleball?

list of benefits of playing pickleball

Pickleball was first invented with children in mind, and it’s a popular game in phys-ed classes and summer camps everywhere. This sport falls somewhere between tennis and ping-pong. The court, racket, and ball are all smaller than those used in tennis, and bigger than in ping-pong.

A pickleball game shares tennis’s level of constant, full-body activity, just on a smaller scale and more forgiving for non-athletes. The ball is light and hollow, like in ping-pong, and the game can be played one-on-one or as doubles.

It also has a social aspect, encouraging social interaction with other players that can benefit self-esteem and overall well-being. And not only that, it’s a great way to break a sweat without stepping foot in a gym.

Why is it Called Pickleball?

Pickleball is a relatively new sport, only rising to popularity in the mid 1960s. When its creators first designed the game, they actually didn't even give it a name! It wasn't until it gained traction that an official name was created, and according to the U.S.A. Pickleball Association, there are a few different accounts when it comes to who gave pickleball its name.

According to one account, the name came from a pickle boat, since the sport was created as a combination of different sports, just as oarsmen from different boats are chosen for the pickle boat in crew. As another story goes however, the name "pickleball" simply comes from the creator's dog—whose name was Pickles!

Top 7 Health Benefits of Pickleball

Still need a reason to get started with playing? Here are a few of the potential benefits of taking up pickleball:

1) It is a Great Cardiovascular Exercise

Pickleball is a fun, aerobic exercise that can get your heart rate up while you’re having a great time, making it a fantastic cardiovascular workout. Doing plenty of cardio exercise has a number of benefits for heart health, potentially reducing the risk of:

  • Reducing the risk of heart attack
  • Lowering the risk of hypertension, or high blood pressure
  • Lowering cholesterol levels

An average game of pickleball involves constant motion: pivoting, running to meet the ball, swinging your paddle to send it back over the net. But given that a pickleball court is roughly half the size of a tennis court, you won’t need to be a competitive athlete to play.

2) It’s Easily Playable By All Ages

four people playing pickleball on an outdoor court

While pickleball was initially designed as a kids game, its popularity is currently surging among older and elderly adults. In fact, there’s even an entire league, US Senior Pickleball, for older adults.

So what is it about pickleball that makes it so accessible to so wide a range of ages? Well, for starters, there’s the size of the court. While the game itself requires continual movement, a smaller court means that those movements will mostly be small and manageable. 

Then there’s the actual equipment. For one, pickleball paddles are smaller and lighter than tennis rackets, so there’s less of a demand on the body when swinging. The net on a pickleball court is also more age-inclusive: it’s lower than in tennis, requiring less force to get the ball over the net.

Finally, the ball is lighter than a tennis ball. Pickleball is played with a hollow, perforated ball, meaning it has a low impact on the joints when striking the ball. 

3) Can Help Reduce Stress

Aside from the stress-relieving effects of enjoyable recreation, pickleball allows you to access the stress-reducing benefits of physical activity itself. Of course, as with any form of exercise, in order to optimize the stress-reducing effect, it’s important to fuel properly and not exceed your physical ability or tolerance. For pickleball players, getting in some physical activity while playing has been linked to significant decreases in anxiety and stress levels

And not only may it help to reduce stress, but it may also contribute to an improved ability to cope with stress. In fact, research shows that pickleball may have significant positive potential when it comes to mental health in general.

4) It’s a Great Way to Meet People

two people with pickleball equipment talking

You’d be surprised just how many people near where you live are likely playing pickleball. Using a resource like Places 2 Play, there’s a good chance you can make new social connections and meet other people to play pickleball with.

While a social sport like pickleball can indeed get competitive, the general ethos of the pickleball community is easygoing and inviting. Most groups playing pickleball will be accommodating of all different ability levels. It’s a great way to meet new people and form relationships, all while having fun and getting a great workout.

5) Enhances Balance, Hand-Eye Coordination, and Overall Physical Fitness

Pickleball provides a full-body workout that’s focused around quick, reactive motions. At the same time, the hollow, perforated ball does not move as fast as something like a tennis ball, allowing the player to train agility, speed, and control under less demanding conditions than many sports.

This makes pickleball a notably accessible way to foster coordination and balance, while also building better cardiorespiratory fitness.

6) Helps Burn Calories and Keeps You in Shape

a woman swinging a pickleball racket

Playing pickleball is a great way to burn some calories. All the cardiovascular exertion pickleball entails can, with time, support:

And the best part is: you won’t even feel like you’re exercising! One of the great things about playing sports as a form of exercise is that it can keep your mind focused on the game rather than on working out. 

7) Stimulates Mental Agility and Cognitive Function

Studies point to a strong link between physical activity and better brain function. And likewise, better cognitive function may contribute to better performance in physical activity and sport, which is to say, it’s a positive feedback loop.

Pickleball, like table tennis, ping pong, badminton, and other racket sports, is a fast-paced game. It requires quick thinking and fast reactions, which can be great training in general. Learning new skills and sets of motions can make it easier to learn similar ones in the future, too. 

All in all, pickleball may very well have a significant positive impact on mental functioning, making it a great way to keep your mind sharp!

Pickleball Rules

The rules of pickleball are relatively straightforward, as it combines tennis, ping pong, and badminton. Each side has one or two players (if playing singles or doubles), and the goal is to score points by hitting a plastic ball over the net and into the opponent's court.

Here's a quick overview of how this sport is played:

  1. Serve: The game starts with an underhand serve diagonally across the net. When serving, you'll need to stand behind the baseline and hit the ball below your waist.
  2. Double Bounce Rule: After the serve, each team or player must let the ball bounce once on their side before hitting it in the air. After that, the ball can be volleyed (hit in the air) or allowed to bounce.
  3. Non-Volley Zone: There's a seven-foot non-volley zone on each side near the net. Players cannot hit the ball while standing in this area, except when the ball bounces in it first.
  4. Scoring: Points are only scored by the serving team each round. Games are typically played to 11 or 21 points, and you must win by at least two points.
  5. Faults: Common faults include hitting the ball out of bounds, not clearing the net, stepping into the non-volley zone when volleying, or volleying before the double bounce.
  6. Rotation: In doubles, players must rotate serving positions after scoring points to ensure fairness.

These fundamental rules govern pickleball and make it an accessible and enjoyable sport for players of all ages and skill levels.

Pickleball Equipment: What You Need to Play Pickleball

images of essential pickleball equipment

As far as what you need to get started with pickleball, it’s really quite simple. Reap the health benefits of playing pickleball with these four things.

Pickleball Paddles

Pickleball paddles are smaller than tennis rackets, and typically made of a lightweight material. While the original pickleball paddles were made of wood, they are now manufactured with lighter, more aerodynamic materials, such as fiberglass, graphite, and carbon fiber. 

Fiberglass will give your swing more power, while graphite tends to “handle” better, and carbon fiber is known for being the lightest, and has exceptional control.

A Pickleball Court (A Tennis Court Could Work)

a pickleball or tennis court

While there are dedicated pickleball courts—and indeed, there may well be one right by your neighborhood—any tennis court will do for playing pickleball. All you’ll need to do to adapt a tennis court for pickleball is a tape measurer and some painter’s tape to mark out the court. 

A Pair of Tennis Shoes

Given its similarity to tennis, it’s no surprise that pickleball is best played in tennis shoes. They will provide optimal support and freedom of movement for pickleball.

Pickleball Balls

someone holding a pickleball and racket

Pickleball balls are not exactly wiffle balls—though they look identical. They in fact have fewer holes and are slightly larger, and though you could make do with a wiffleball, your best bet is to get a proper plastic ball designed for this sport.

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Heather Davis, MS, RDN, LDN

Reviewed by: Heather Davis, MS, RDN, LDN

Heather is a Registered and Licensed Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN, LDN), subject matter expert, and technical writer, with a master's degree in nutrition science from Bastyr University. She has a specialty in neuroendocrinology and has been working in the field of nutrition—including nutrition research, education, medical writing, and clinical integrative and functional nutrition—for over 15 years.