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Pickleball is more popular than ever: Here's why it's so good for your health

The badminton-Ping-Pong hybrid is especially popular with older adults.
/ Source: TODAY

Pickleball, the badminton-Ping-Pong hybrid, is suddenly everywhere. The fastest growing sport in America boasts more than 4.5 million players including TODAY’s Jenna Bush Hager and Leonardo DiCaprio. But the game with a silly name — it has nothing to do with pickles — is especially popular with adults 55 and older.

There are many reasons that pickleball appeals to seniors seeking a fun and social way to stay in shape. For starters, matches are played on a court considerably smaller than a tennis court, which makes for less running. But with games typically lasting an hour, you’ll work up a good sweat and burn up to 11 calories per minute. (Always check with your doctor before starting a new exercise program.)

What are the health benefits of pickleball?

Phillip Adler, manager of athletic training outreach in the orthopedic department at Spectrum Health, likes that pickleball is low impact on the knees and joints. It also uses an underhand serve, which reduces muscle strain.

“It’s not without risk, but if you have a rotator cuff issues or problems with your shoulders, pickleball is a good option to consider,” he told TODAY Health. "The paddle is also lighter than a tennis racket at 7-ounces."

Heather Milton, a senior exercise physiologist at NYU Langone’s Sports Performance Center, describes pickleball as “approachable sport” that combines that benefits of cardiovascular exercise and social connections. Playing in close quarters means it’s easy to catch up with a friend — or three — if you play doubles!

“When you get on an elliptical or a treadmill, you’re moving forward the whole time,” Milton explained. “Pickleball gives you a much more well-rounded movement pattern because you are moving in multiple planes of motion and in different directions. It contributes to improving your agility, your muscular endurance as well as hand-eye coordination.”

According to Adler, pickleball activates all of the muscle groups.

"You're using your forearms, biceps, triceps — and because there's some bending over, you're also strengthening your hamstrings and quads," he said. "And you're getting your heart rate up, too."

Joan Dodds, a retired physical therapist in Sudbury, Massachusetts, plays three times a week and has introduced several friends to the game.

“It’s really easy to learn and very beginner friendly," Dodds shared. “On the other hand, if you’re advanced, it’s a quick moving sport. There’s basically a level for every person all the way up to the pros.”

Dodds added that pickleball is accessible and inclusive. All you need is a paddle — she’s seen good ones for under $50 — and a ball.

“You can play in your driveway. Just draw your lines with chalk,” Dodd said. “And if you don’t have a net, you can string a rope across two chairs and you have a pickleball court!”

Savannah Guthrie now understands what the fuss is all about. TODAY team recently got together to play doubles.

“It’s just sort of an easy, accessible, fun, lighthearted sport to play, and you can play it at any age,” Savannah declared.