This Study Just Explained Why Pickleball Is So Popular, And No It's Not Just Because Of The Cute Outfits

  RichLegg via Getty Images
RichLegg via Getty Images

By now, you’ve probably seen a headline or two (or 200) labeling pickleball the “fastest-growing sport in the country.” Pickleball courts, clubs and leagues have popped up all over the country, and nearly 50 million people, or 19% of Americans, picked up a paddle last year, according to the Association of Pickleball Professionals.

According to people who play, there are a ton of reasons why pickleball exploded in popularity: it’s fun and competitive. It’s a great way to make friends, plus it’s largely inclusive — people of all ages and skill levels can join in. But perhaps the biggest selling point for playing pickleball is how beneficial it can be for our mental health.

A new report from Apple investigated the health benefits of pickleball using data gathered from Apple Watch users who opted into the study and found that playing pickleball is not only an impressive workout that can boost our cardiovascular and metabolic health, it’s also associated with lower rates of self-reported depression.

Per the study, the self-reported scores of depressive symptoms were 60% lower among frequent pickleball players compared to the general group of study participants. Long story short: racket sports help people work out their body and their mind, making them one of the healthiest physical activities available.

“The potential reasons for this observation could be attributed to a number of different reasons, including the sport’s impact on hormones, neuromuscular coordination, resilience and more,” principal investigator of the study Dr. Calum MacRae, a cardiologist and Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, told HuffPost.

Why Pickleball Can Be A Powerful Mood Booster

According to MacRae, sports, including pickleball, provide numerous physical and mental health benefits. When you participate in an aerobic activity like pickleball, your body releases endorphins, or hormones that relieve pain, reduce stress, and boost well-being.

Playing pickleball is also a fun and efficient way of meeting the recommended guidance for physical activity (150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise a week). Physical activity is known to improve quality of life and promote healthy aging, especially in older adults, evidence consistently shows. And, as the Apple report revealed, pickleball games last roughly 90 minutes on average, helping you knock out half the amount of weekly physical activity needed in just one session.

An elderly woman in sporty attire is playing a game of pickleball on an outdoor court, holding a paddle and smiling while reaching for the ball
Visual Vic via Getty Images

Pickleball also gives people the opportunity to stay connected with friends and family or develop new relationships. When people join leagues, for example, they might form a new sense of community and belonging. Plus, it’s inclusive: You can play with people of all ages, skill levels and backgrounds.

“Humans thrive when we experience connection, and pickleball allows us to bond with one another through an activity that also physically makes us feel good,” said Emily Hemendinger, an assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus.

It can also provide a sense of purpose and fulfillment. “Playing a sport, such as pickleball, can give people a goal to work towards, whether it’s winning a game, meeting people, or improving one’s skills,” Hemendinger said. Winning, in particular, can lead to a sense of pride and accomplishment, she added.

Pickleball Keeps Your Brain Sharp, Too

Another theory from MacRae as to why pickleball can be such a mood booster: playing pickleball outdoors may increase exposure to natural daylight. And the more natural light we’re exposed to, the better our sleep quality, activity levels, and overall quality of life are, research suggests.

That’s not all. The game also requires people to pay attention and think quickly and strategically. If you get distracted, for example, you run the risk of getting hit in the face with the ball or letting down your partner.

Physical activities that require strategic thinking promote cognitive functioning, which can help prevent cognitive decline. “Some studies have even found that sports like pickleball and racket sports can improve memory and processing speed,” Hemendinger said.

In short: pickleball not only works out your body, it exercises your mind. Taking care of your brain through thinking and problem-solving activities can help decrease stress and anxiety.

“Any type of mindful movement, especially with others, can improve mood and help your physical and mental health,” Hemendinger said.

Person holding a green wiffle ball and black paddle over a tennis net, appearing to position for a serve
July Alcantara / Getty Images

How To Start Playing Pickleball 

Landon Uetz, a physical therapist and pickleball instructor on TeachMe.To, said the pickleball community is very welcoming of new players.

Before playing, it can be helpful to watch a video online to get a basic understanding of the rules. And if you’re hesitant about stepping onto a court — whether that be due to fear of not knowing the rules, getting hurt or failing — consider getting a lesson, Uetz said.

Before you jump into a game, it’s worth warming up, either through dynamic stretching or movement exercises (think: jumping jacks, light jogging or lunges). When coming from a sedentary state — whether that’s at work, at home or after waking up — it’s important to increase circulation throughout your body. A warm-up loosens up your muscles, bones, ligaments and gets ready for activity, which can reduce the risk of pain or injury, Uetz said.

A person in a blue shirt is standing outdoors, performing a neck stretch by tilting their head to one side and gently pulling with their hand
Photodjo / Getty Images

If you have any injuries, check in with a health care provider before you give pickleball a go. They may be able to provide some advice as to whether it’s safe for you to participate or if there are any modifications you can do during a game to protect from injury. According to Hemendinger, as with all things, moderation is key.

“Doing any physical activity too much may lead to injury or exhaustion,” she said.

Listen to your body — if certain muscles start to ache, consider ramping up more gradually. Instead of playing for two hours, for example, try to hit the ball around for 30 minutes, Uetz said.

Even short bursts of activity can offer tremendous mental health benefits. “Whether it’s for 15 minutes or 90 minutes, getting out and moving your body mindfully and resetting your nervous system from a stressful day is a reliable stress reliever and coping skill,” Hemendinger said.

This post originally appeared on HuffPost.