Why Are Seniors Loving Pickleball?
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s unlikely that you’d heard of pickleball. But once the pandemic began and people were stuck at home, desperate for fresh air and physical activity, pickleball became all the rage in the U.S., and it hasn’t slowed down since.
As of 2021, nearly 5 million people in the U.S. (2 percent of the population) played pickleball, according to the latest report from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association; that was a 20 percent increase from the previous year.
Pickleball is popular among a wide range of ages, but older adults in particular are frequent players. Adults 65 and older make up 18 percent of all pickleball players, but among core players who play eight or more times per year, that increases to 33 percent, the highest percentage of any age group.
But why do seniors love pickleball so much, and how did it get so popular? Let’s investigate.
The History of Pickleball
In 1965, on Bainbridge Island off the coast of Seattle, Washington, three fathers invented pickleball to entertain their bored children during summer break. Using handmade equipment and a badminton-size court, the sport is a combination of badminton, ping pong, and tennis.
While there are differing accounts as to why it’s called pickleball, involving everything from a dog named Pickles to a pickle boat, pickleball didn’t really take off until the 21st century, not exploding into popularity until 2020, a whopping 55 years after it was invented.
The Current State of Pickleball in the U.S.
Google Trends tracks Google searches on a scale of 1 to 100. Looking at the data, it’s clear that interest in pickleball started increasing in 2015 but didn’t skyrocket until April 2020, and it’s been on the rise ever since. In April 2020, the search level was at 10 out of 100, but by June 2023, it was at 98, an increase in search of 880 percent.
But we don’t need to depend solely on search data to see how popular pickleball really is. USA Pickleball is an organization that maintains the rules of the sport, rates players, sanctions tournaments, and promotes the sport in the U.S., and its 2023 fact sheet offers fascinating information on just how popular pickleball really is.
USA Pickleball differentiates between “casual” players, who play the sport one to seven times a year, and “core” players, who play eight times a year or more. Of the core players, 55 percent were ages 55 and older, meaning that, although more young people play pickleball, older adults are more serious and frequent players.
|Age group||Percentage of total pickleball players in 2021||Percentage of core players||Percentage of casual players|
|65 and older||18%||33%||12%|
Pickleball is most popular in the South Atlantic region, which includes popular retirement states like Florida.
|U.S. region||States included||Total number of pickleball participants in 2021||Percentage of all pickleball players in 2021|
|South Atlantic||Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, District of Columbia||1,087,000||29%|
|Earth North Central||Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, Indiana||801,000||21%|
|Pacific||California, Oregon, Washington||780,000||20%|
|Mid-Atlantic||New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia||675,000||18%|
|West North Central||Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota||318,000||8%|
|East North Central||Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee||151,000||4%|
The states with the most courts are Texas, Florida, and California, all of which have warm weather, a large population of older adults and a large population in general, and a lot of area.
|District of Columbia||38||50||68||118|
Why Do Older Adults Love Pickleball So Much?
Unlike golf and tennis, pickleball has low startup costs. Rackets cost $75 to $100 on average, while balls cost about $2 each, and you won’t need to buy any special type of apparel.
Pickleball is accessible both in terms of the number of places to play available and the ease of learning and playing the sport. The rules are simple enough to learn in a single session, you can play indoors or outdoors, and pickleball venues are available in:
- Local community recreation centers
- Senior living communities
Part of the reason that pickleball is so easy to play is because of the small court. At only 44 long by 20 feet wide, it’s easier to keep the ball in play, not requiring more movement than about two to four steps. Less running means less wear and tear on the joints, preventing hip, ankle, and knee injuries. Aside from the small court size, the ball itself is small and lightweight, meaning it moves through the air slowly and doesn’t require much intensity to hit, lessening strain on the muscles and tendons. Additionally, with underhand serves only, the sport is much less taxing than tennis.
Played in singles and doubles in quick, 11-point rounds, pickleball allows people to socialize with each other, replacing players frequently and forming communities of like-minded people across all ages.
There are very few sports that appeal to multiple generations, but pickleball is an exception. Easy to learn and play, you can skip the strife and go straight to the enjoyment. Play with your friends, kids, and grandkids alike!
According to the Medical University of South Carolina, pickleball has a number of health benefits, including:
- Improved hand-eye coordination, which could help with eating and driving skills
- Better balance, which could prevent falls
- Greater calorie expenditure
- Improved cardiovascular function, which may prevent hypertension, stroke, and heart attack
- Endorphins, which can combat depression and build self-esteem
How to Start Playing
You can find a place to play pickleball using USA Pickleball’s online directory: https://www.places2play.org/. There are places to play in every single U.S. state, along with all Canadian provinces. All you’ll need are balls and paddles, which you can find at any sporting goods store!
It may be hard for older adults to get regular exercise, and a lack of movement could cause a vicious cycle. Seniors who don’t exercise tend to have stiff joints, which makes exercising harder. But even if it’s been a while since you’ve hit the gym, pickleball is a great way to get moving, have fun, and make new friends.