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Sunday, April 26, 2020

Pickleball Is All the Rage Among Older Adults

Forget tennis and golf. The “in” crowd is playing pickleball, and they’re having a blast.

Recent retiree Ted Crawford moved to Grand Junction, Colorado from Denver just over a year ago “without knowing a soul.” He likes to keep fit, and looked to the local college for activities. He discovered a thriving pickleball community and immediately joined in. The sport has become not only his preferred physical activity, but his main source of socializing as well. This winter, he went to Mexico with some of his new friends. When searching for a place to stay, a primary focus was on how close the group would be to pickleball courts.

Crawford is part of a growing segment of older adults embracing the game. Any age can play, but the light paddle and ball (no more tennis elbow!), smaller court and social aspect (most play is doubles) make it particularly attractive to the older crowd. It’s not uncommon to see players well into their 80s, or even 90s, on the court.


The game got invented, so the story goes, back in 1965 by a U.S. Congressman, Joel Pritchard, who later became the lieutenant governor of Washington state. When he and a friend were looking for entertainment one weekend, they thought of the badminton court on his property but couldn’t find the right equipment. Undeterred, they grabbed ping-pong paddles and a wiffle ball, making up the rules on the spot. It was so much fun they taught their friends to play, but the sport remained obscure for decades. Where did the odd moniker for the game come from? The name of the family dog was, you guessed it, Pickles.

According to the U.S.A. Pickleball Association, there are more than 15,000 indoor and outdoor courts across the country, with more going in all the time. Conveniently, any tennis court can serve double duty for pickleball just by painting in lines for the smaller court. More and more retirement communities are including pickleball courts in their plans as the number of players in this country has bounded well past the 3 million mark. Pickleball first became popular in the sun belt states, but it has since spread across the U.S. and internationally, as Crawford will attest.


A small study recently found that middle-aged and older adults who played pickleball three times a week for one hour per session for six weeks improved both their blood pressure and cardiovascular fitness. Researchers said they credit the game’s “fun factor” combined with its “moderate exercise activity” as making it “an ideal alternative form of physical activity” for the group. It is well known that people stick with exercise they look forward to.

But the benefits are not limited to physical well-being, according to a larger Japanese study. It connected the “serious leisure” activity with lower levels of depression and came to the conclusion that social connections made during the game were at least partly responsible for the drop.

The game does encourage interaction. Not only are most competitions played as doubles, with two players to each side of the net, but waiting players mingle around the small (20’ x 44’) court. A game usually takes just 15 minutes to play, and there is no serious running, so knees are spared.

Former gym teacher Sandy Fruean, 67, got her Cape Cod community to paint pickleball lines on eight tennis courts at the local high school. A year ago, 30 players ranging in age from 16 to 85 took to the courts. Now, the league has 280 “picklers” as devotees of the sport are called. “One of the best things about it is the social connections people make,” Fruean notes, “with seniors in particular. And for people caring for a loved one, it is like respite care. They can stop in for an hour or two to get a little break, socialize with people and get a little exercise.”

Click below for the other articles in the April 2020 Senior Spirit