Is playing pickleball all the exercise you need to maintain a healthy heart?
This isn’t an idle question. A peer-reviewed study published last fall in the Journal of Aging and Physical Activity, collected data from 22 singles and 31 pickleball doubles players.
These were recreational players with a median age of 62 years old. The players were outfitted with watches that tracked their heart rates and steps.
The study found that doubles players achieved a moderate workout for about 50 percent of the time they were on the court, while singles players had both a higher intensity and higher step count.
An hour of doubles pickleball resulted in a median step count of 2,791 steps, according to the study.
That’s not a lot.
To put that in perspective, just walking at a moderate pace (3 miles per hour) for an hour is about 6,000 steps. And walking at a more brisk 4 mph pace is 8,000 steps.
So, as a doubles pickleball player, you’re probably not going to get your 10,000 daily steps on a court unless you’re willing to play for more than about three hours for that day.
The Centers for Disease Control recommends that adults get 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity activity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity every week.
The CDC also recommends some muscle-strengthening activities for two or more days a week. These would include exercises that work all major muscle groups.
If an hour of doubles pickleball nets about 30 minutes of moderate-intensity cardio, it would take five hours of pickleball each week to achieve the needed minimum of aerobic activity.
That’s certainly doable for many players. As for using pickleball as a weight-loss activity, well, that depends on the person.
Calories burned are a function of a person’s weight, the duration of the exercise, and how actively a person plays the game. It can get kind of complicated.
There’s a metric called the Metabolic Equivalent of Task (MET) that measures intensity through oxygen use while doing the exercise.
The higher the MET, the more intense and calorie-burning the exercise is. So, it’s interesting to compare the MET of pickleball to other sports and activities.
Pickleball has an MET of 4.1, which is close to playing golf without a cart (4.3), curling (4.0), or doing the laundry (4.0); and slightly more strenuous than playing the trombone while standing (3.5), feeding small animals (3.5) and directing auto traffic (2.5). But it’s nowhere near mountain bike racing (16.0), basketball (8.0), or, even, polka dancing (7.8).
That’s not to say that regularly playing pickleball may possess some important therapeutic benefits that aren’t explained by these numbers.
A medical study on middle-aged and older adults found that pickleball was a feasible alternative to traditional exercises aimed at improving cardiorespiratory fitness and lowering cardiac disease risk factors.
The study financed by the American Council on Exercise and conducted by researchers at Western State Colorado University recruited 15 participants ranging in ages from 40 to 85 years to play four doubles games every day for six weeks.
“The results of the current study demonstrate that regular participation in pickleball confers similar health benefits when compared to those achieved from traditional aerobic training,” the study found. “Indeed, playing pickleball for six weeks resulted in significant improvements in the lipid profile, blood pressure and cardiorespiratory fitness.”
This is important, considering that the lack of cardiorespiratory fitness is the highest risk factor for death among both men and women.
And pickleball is fun, maybe even more fun than playing the trombone while standing.