When I was a kid, my summer sport of choice was baseball. Every day I played in marathon neighborhood games until it was too dark to see the ball. It was about fun and not fitness. But now that I'm older, and my Louisville Slugger has been officially retired, I need a summertime sport that recaptures the playfulness of my youth, but also works to keep my physical and mental skills sharp.
So, I picked up a racket.
It turns out that racket sports are not only fun, but they may help me live longer. A study published online by the British Journal of Sports Medicine examined the link between six different types of exercise and the risk of early death. Researched looked at racket sports, swimming, aerobics, cycling, running, and soccer. Study volunteers included 80,306 people, who ranged in age from 30 to 98. Over the course of the study's nine years, those who regularly played racket sports were 47% less likely to die of any cause and 56% less likely to die of cardiovascular disease.
"In many ways, racket sports like tennis, squash, badminton, racquetball, Ping-Pong, and other variations are the ideal exercise for many older adults," says Vijay A. Daryanani, a physical therapist and personal trainer with Harvard-affiliated Spaulding Outpatient Center. "Besides offering a good cardiovascular workout, they can help with both upper- and lower-body strength at one time. They can be played at any age, can be modified to fit most fitness levels, and do not involve a lot of equipment."
Body and mind games
Racket sports offer something other fitness sports do not — lateral movement. "Most of our lives are spent moving forward, and that includes our exercise," says Daryanani. "Racket sports force you to move both back and forth and side to side. This helps improve balance and weight shifting, which can lower your risk of falls."
This kind of activity also exercises your mind. From a cognitive standpoint, it sharpens your planning and decision-making skills, as you must constantly anticipate and execute your next shot.
Racket sports also serve up a strong social component. You play against other people — either as a single or part of a doubles team — while other exercises like running, swimming, and cycling are more isolated activities. Frequent social contact is essential for a long and healthy life. In fact, a 2012 study in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that loneliness was associated with functional decline and an increased risk of death among adults older than age 60.
Pick up pickleball
While there are many types of racket sports to try, one of the fastest-growing among older adults is "pickleball." It's a hybrid sport that blends tennis, table tennis, and the backyard childhood game of Wiffle® ball.
The paddle is between a table tennis paddle and a tennis racket in size and made of lightweight composite material, such as aluminum or graphite, which cuts down on fatigue. The plastic pickleball resembles a larger Wiffle® ball and travels about one-third the speed of a tennis ball, so it is easier to see and hit.
Pickleball is played both indoors and outdoors. The court is 20 by 44 feet, or about the size of a double badminton court. The net is shorter than a tennis net, which makes it easier to hit over. Here are the basic rules:
- The ball is served underhanded and must land in the opposite diagonal court just beyond a 10-foot area by the net called the "kitchen."
- The ball must bounce once before being returned, and again before being returned by the serving team.
- Once the ball has bounced and been returned by each team, volleying may continue with or without bounces, only if participants are outside of the kitchen.
- Games are played to 11 points, with points scored only by the serving team.
- A two-point spread wins the game.
Pickleball has become a staple at many YMCAs and senior community centers. You can find places to play at the website of the USA Pickleball Association.