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Aug 15, 2023
Older adults can enjoy health benefits from pickleball while reducing risks
Older adults playing pickleball

Pickleball is one of the fastest-growing sports in the United States, and older adults are helping drive its popularity. That’s good news because of the game’s mental and physical health benefits, said Dr. Grant Tarbox, a national medical executive with Cigna Healthcare’s Medicare business and an avid pickleballer. However, he emphasized that it’s important for seniors to play pickleball safely.

Pickleball has been described as a cross between tennis, pingpong, and badminton. It is inexpensive to play and easy to learn. It can be played outside or inside. The staples of pickleball include a court, a paddle, and, of course, the pickleball itself, which is a plastic ball with holes in it, similar to a whiffle ball.

Pickleball is a low-impact game compared to some other sports. A pickleball court is smaller and easier to cover than a tennis court, making it an accessible game for all ages, especially when playing doubles, which brings us to pickleball’s next selling point. Pickleball is a social sport that can help reduce loneliness and isolation.

“In my neighborhood, we play most weekends,” Dr. Tarbox said. “We taped down courts on our cul-de-sac, so all we have to do is pull out the nets and play. Many people in their 60s and 70s are participating. It has really become a neighborhood activity and social event.”

In addition to mental health benefits, pickleball provides a host of positive physical benefits, such as helping to build muscle and bone strength and flexibility. It also helps to improve cardiovascular health, which can help prevent high blood pressure, strokes and heart attacks.

Nevertheless, it’s important to take proper precautions when playing pickleball. Dr. Tarbox, the pickleball enthusiast, offers the following tips.

Talk to your doctor

Just like with any exercise routine, it’s important to speak with your doctor before getting started with pickleball, especially if you have a history of chronic health conditions or are taking medications that could affect your blood pressure or balance.

Check the weather

If you’re playing outside, it’s a good idea to check the forecast. Are there any heat advisories? Are there any air quality concerns? You may want to consider playing in the morning or the evening, when the temperatures are generally a little cooler. Wear proper sunscreen in order to protect your skin. Take rest breaks and drink water as needed.

Wear appropriate shoes

Just like tennis, pickleball can require quick lateral movements. For that reason, you’ll want to wear proper footwear, including shoes with good arch and ankle support and good traction. Keep your shoes well-laced to prevent falls. Also, consider ankle and knee support as recommended by your doctor.

Make sure to hydrate

Older adults are more prone to becoming dehydrated rapidly. Therefore, it is important for seniors to hydrate before, during, and after a physical activity like pickleball. Always take a water bottle to the courts and pause to take sips. In addition to water, you might want to drink a low-sodium sports drink to restore electrolytes if your healthcare provider agrees.

Warm up before playing

You don’t want to jump right into any exercise cold. It’s important to warm up your joints and muscles first. This might include a combination of stretching, jogging, arm circles, and lunges. Only do as much stretching as your doctor recommends.

Have paddle awareness

You don’t want to be caught on the wrong end of a forcefully swung paddle. So take safety precautions, just like you would in softball or tennis. Be careful when others are taking swings, both during a game and when warming up.

“Even when you take all the proper precautions, there can be some physical risks associated with pickleball, just like with any sport,” Dr. Tarbox said. “The most common injuries are minor, such as abrasions, sprains, and strains, which will usually resolve on their own with some rest. But if your injury doesn’t heal, please make sure to contact your health care provider.”

If you’ve gotten your doctor’s agreement and are interested in getting started with pickleball, you can visit the USA Pickleball Association website and enter your ZIP code to find places to play near you. Some Medicare Advantage plans even offer access to fitness centers at no extra cost. Some of these centers may include pickleball courts and leagues.

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