When fun and fitness take equal stage, not only will participation rise, so will adherence
A 2022 survey showed that the number of players has tripled in two years, with eight per cent of households reporting at least one household member playing pickleball once a month. That translates into millions playing pickleball, 45 per cent of whom play four or more times per month.
Baby boomers were some of the earliest adopters of the sport, though the number of 18–to-34-year-olds taking up the game is rising steadily. With fun and fitness often cited as the reason so many have picked up a racquet, it’s worth finding out just how much of a workout you get during a game of pickleball.
A hybrid of tennis, badminton and table tennis, pickleball is played on a (20 by 44 foot) court, with the majority of recreational players preferring doubles over singles. It is a smaller court than tennis, so pickleball players don’t have as much ground to cover. This makes it a great game for people who have slowed a step or two over time. But due to the newness of the sport, there are only a few studies that have investigated how pickleball contributes to overall fitness.
A team of American researchers from Western State Colorado University outfitted eight women and seven men between the ages of 40 and 85 with portable units designed to determine how much energy they expend during a game of pickleball. They also took a before and after snapshot of their cardiometabolic health to see whether pickleball had a positive effect on their fitness and health after six weeks of regular play.
A group of researchers from Brigham Young University in Idaho looked into the game’s physiological demands, hoping to discover how 30 minutes of doubles pickleball compares with a 30-minute walk. They gathered 25 pickleball players (15 men and 10 women) with an average age of 38 and equipped them with sensors to measure heart rate, step count and calories burned while walking and playing pickleball.
Both studies confirmed that pickleball is a legitimate workout. Picklers in the Western State Colorado study averaged a heart rate of 108 beats per minute and burned 353.5 calories per match, which
classifies as a moderate intensity workout.
“Regular participation in pickleball elicits cardiovascular and metabolic responses that fulfill exercise intensity guidelines for improving and maintaining cardiovascular fitness,” said the researchers.
The 15 men and women also improved their health and fitness over the course of the study which required them to play an hour of pickleball a day (about four doubles matches).
“After six weeks of participation in pickleball, there were significant improvements in the following outcomes: high-density lipoprotein (HDL) and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, systolic and diastolic blood pressure, and maximal oxygen uptake,” the researchers said.
As to how pickleball compares with walking, the subjects in the Brigham Young study registered heart rates 14 per cent higher and caloric expenditure 36 per cent greater playing doubles pickleball compared with walking. They said pickleball felt like more of workout than walking.
“Playing pickleball doubles was perceived to be more strenuous than walking, as median ratings of perceived exertion after pickleball doubles were nearly 44 per cent greater than median ratings of perceived exertion after walking,” said the researchers from Brigham Young.
When it comes to the number of steps however, a 30-minute walk tallied 54 per cent more steps than a doubles game. The smaller court, close proximity of teammates on the same side of the net and much of the play taking place at the net means fewer steps are accumulated over the course of a match.
As interesting as these statistics are, they come with a caveat: The researchers from Western State Colorado noted considerable variability between subjects, with some heart rates indicating individuals playing well within the range of what’s considered a vigorous intensity workout. It’s also likely that some individuals play at the other end of the intensity range, with their energy expenditure lower than the average pickleball player.
The subjects in the Brigham Young study considered pickleball more fun than walking, a sentiment that was echoed by the respondents in the Pickleball survey. Sixty-two per cent of those polled stated the primary reason they play pickleball is because it’s fun, a number that increased to 89 per cent among baby boomers..
That sense of enjoyment is what’s driving the surge in participation in pickleball leagues and on neighborhood courts across the country. When fun and fitness take equal stage, not only will participation rise, so will adherence. People will come back for fun more often than they will for exercise. Also important among picklers is the social aspect of the game. Thirty-eight per cent of the survey respondents said is what keeps them on the court. All of this is good news for pickleballers who are spending their exercise on the courts. They’re having fun and getting in great shape!