The peer-reviewed study, published in the Journal of Aging and Physical Activity, suggests that pickleball can provide a moderate workout for middle-aged and older people. But they would need to play up to 4.5 hours a week to meet the recommended exercise guidelines.
If you count steps, the study showed that you’ll collect relatively few during an hour of pickleball, about half as much as during an average hour-long brisk walk.
And while the game achieved a vigorous activity level 30% of the time for many players, it may not offer as much of a physical challenge for people who are young or already in good shape.
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 generally defined like practicing to the point where you can talk but not sing. Vigorous exercise, on the other hand, includes more demanding exercises such as jogging, fast cycling, and singles tennis.
Pickleball, played with a paddle and a perforated polymer ball, combines elements of tennis, badminton, table tennis and racquetball. Pickleball players compete in a smaller space than tennis players; up to four pickleball courts can fit on a standard tennis court. A game is best played two out of three games and each game can last 15 to 25 minutes. People of all ages play it, but the sport has long been associated with seniors and retirees after three men from 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 fitted 53 recreational devices pickleball players with smartwatches to track their heart rate and accelerometers to measure their steps. Participants’ ages ranged from 29 to 73, although most were middle-aged or older.
They warmed up by walking or jogging around the courts for three minutes at what they deemed a “moderate” intensity, then practiced hitting various pickleball shots for 2-5 minutes before the game. The game lasted at least an hour, with 22 of them playing singles and the rest doubles. The time included short breaks if participants had to leave a court and wait for the next available court.
The study found that, based on accelerometer data showing step counts, players took an average of 3,322 steps per hour and around 80% of singles pickleball games were of moderate intensity. (The rest was light intensity.)
Doubles pickleball players moved less, posting just 2,790 steps per hour. During the doubles game, participants spent only about half the time doing moderate-intensity exercise and the other half light-intensity exercise.
But the players’ heart rate readings indicated that singles and doubles competitions could provide more training than the step counts showed, said Sandra Webber, lead researcher 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 enthusiast’ and at 54 plays three to four times a week.
During singles and doubles matches, many men’s and women’s heart rates reached around 111 beats per minute, a level that would put older adults in the moderate exercise range, Webber said. The participants’ average heart rate also reached about 70% of the predicted maximum heart rate for singles and doubles players, which meets the definition of moderate activity, according to the Centers for Control and Prevention of Disasters.
Singles and doubles pickleball players spent about 40% of their time in the moderate heart rate intensity zone, about 30% in light activity, and about 30% in the vigorous zone, suggesting that with enough playing time, players could achieve the recommended activity goals.
“I would say 70% of the time people were out in the field, they were doing exercise that counted towards their 150 minutes a week,” Webber said. “Our results suggest that if people played pickleball for four and a half hours a week, they would meet their 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 most significant heart rate responses and would highlight them against to accelerometer data. The study likely confirms “what your hunches would be,” he said, “that you get somewhere between the high end of moderate physical activity and the low end of vigorous physical activity,” during pickleball.
Ben Johns, 23, of Gaithersburg, Md., the Professional Pickleball Association‘s world No. 1 player for men’s singles and doubles, said pickleball has quicker movements and less downtime than tennis.
“Usually in tennis you can sprint for the ball occasionally, but most of the time you kind of know where the ball is going and you’re moving at a pace that’s not instantaneous,” unlike pickleball, Johns said. . Additionally, the pitches are smaller in pickleball and the sport often requires quick points near the net, he added.
But pickleball isn’t for everyone. As the sport develops, so do injuries. Webber said tendon pain in the elbows, widely known as “tennis elbow,” is a common injury among pickleball players. She added that “there were some very serious eye injuries from being hit, usually with a ball but also potentially with your partner’s racquet in the eye”.
Webber hopes to research other potential pickleball benefits, such as muscle strength, flexibility and bone health.
Based on her education and personal experience, Webber remains a fan of pickleball.
“Most people once they try it they get hooked,” she said.