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Staying Active, Reducing Anxiety: The Mental Health Benefits of Pickleball for Older Adults

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As we grow older, I have learned we are no longer that well-oiled machine. We creak and groan a bit and it is not uncommon for activity levels to change. More of our time may become centered around family, career, and other obligations. However, making time for regular physical activity provides immense benefits for both physical and mental health. One sport that is exploding in popularity among older adults is pickleball. This racket sport combines elements of tennis, badminton, and ping pong into a fun, social game accessible for all ages and mobility levels.

According to professional interventionist Dr. Louise Stanger, “Pickleball is a great way for older adults to get moving and active in a social setting.” The game has simple equipment needs – just a paddle, wiffle ball, and flat court – making it an approachable sport for beginners. Part of the appeal is the lower impact on the body and joints compared to tennis, as pickleball utilizes a smaller court and underhand strokes. The minimal startup costs also make it easier for community centers and clubs to build dedicated pickleball courts. As more courts emerge across the country, so too do opportunities for seniors to stay active in this inclusive community.

The accessibility of pickleball makes it ideal for adults who otherwise hesitate to participate in group sports. Walking, stretching, and light aerobic activity improve circulation, balance, agility, hand-eye coordination, and reaction time – all physical attributes that gradually decline with age. Dr. Stanger notes that for seniors, “[exercise] allows for more mobility and flexibility which enables connections with others.” Building muscle and maintaining joint health allow seniors to continue participating in events and activities that bring joy and purpose. 

Beyond the physical perks, pickleball encourages valuable social interaction for older adults. Games are usually played in doubles or small groups, sparking friendly competition, inside jokes and banter between players. It’s often said one reason pickleball is so popular is because it facilitates conversation – during slow moments in the game, players will casually chat about family, careers, travel and more. Social camaraderie helps reduce loneliness and isolation, which, according to Dr. Stanger, can “expedite cognitive decline” in seniors. Surrounded by peers with shared life experiences, pickleball facilitates a sense of belonging.

Laughter and humor also abound alongside the chatter – emotional benefits that should not be understated. Additional mental health gains include stress relief, mood enhancement, and improved sleep quality, thanks to the sport’s physical demands. The Aerobic Center Longitudinal Study at the Cooper Institute found over 10 years of research that regular physical activity defends against anxiety and feelings of depression. Pickleball’s accessibility and appeal make it much easier for seniors to participate consistently, allowing these neuroprotective effects to accrue over time. Alongside physical gains, mental sharpness increases as players exercise cognitive skills like strategy, shot selection, and scoring.

With its thriving social scenes and overall impact on longevity, it’s no wonder pickleball is being wholeheartedly embraced by senior communities across North America. USA Pickleball membership increased 29.4% from 2021 to 2022, from about 53,000 members to about 69,000 members. Retirement neighborhoods and 55+ active living centers continue installing courts to meet demand. Many seniors who reluctantly tried pickleball at a friend’s encouragement became avid players; the sport has a way of alluring even those skeptical of racket sports. It has grown very rapidly in popularity, especially among those ages 55 and over. Almost one-third of core players (who play 8+ times per year) are seniors according to Time.

Whether playing for competition, exercise, fun, or mere curiosity, pickleball delivers multidimensional health benefits for both the body and mind. The sport’s sensation comes easily: it activates our laughter, our breath, joints that delight at renewed motion. Then good company and rallying take over until we’re absorbed in the childlike joy of games. Hours or years later we inevitably feel lighter, younger, restored by a new yet familiar pastime. That’s the alluring magic of this sport growing national fame across all generations – yet seniors in particular have huge gains from embracing the popular wave.

“For older adults having fun might be the best reason to play. You don’t have to be a superstar. There are lots of different levels so you can shine. The important thing for a seniors self-esteem is to be included, not excluded,” Dr. Stanger said.

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