Why Is Pickleball So Popular (and Such Great Exercise)?

Ari Cofer Fact Checked
An image of two pickleball paddles
© Raymond Forbes LLC / Stocksy United

Pickleball — the increasingly popular sport — was created primarily out of boredom. It rapidly expanded from courts on Bainbridge Island in 1965 to being played in all 50 states by 1990. 

Fast-forward to 2021: the USA Pickleball Membership surpassed 53,000 members, and the sport continues to expand as people everywhere learn how much fun it is to play and easy it is to learn. And even better — it’s accessible to players of all ages and is a great way to get some exercise.  

So next time you’re deciding what to do on family game night, put down the Monopoly board — pickleball is just as fun and competitive and a lot more heart-healthy.  

Relish the health benefits 

Pickleball combines elements of tennis, table tennis and badminton, which means there’s a lot of running … and a lot of swinging. These movements can equate to a decent aerobic workout and other muscular strengthening. 

“Pickleball has a lot of benefits, one of the biggest being the heart benefits,” says Dr. Mia Hagen, a surgeon and director of the Sports Medicine Center at Husky Stadium. “It’s a good aerobic exercise that’s fun while you’re doing it, so for people who may not enjoy endurance exercises, it can be fun and more interesting than running or biking.”  

Aerobic and endurance exercises strengthen your heart, improve circulation and improve the heart’s ability to pump blood to your muscles. It’s typically recommended to schedule at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity into your week — which could be as few as two games of pickleball depending on the length of the match. 

“Pickleball also helps with reaction times,” says Hagen. “You need to have quick reactions in the game, and it can help with your muscle reflexes.”  

Your reaction time is the measure of how fast you can respond to a certain stimulus, like a pickleball heading for your face. Playing pickleball can help with these types of reflexes, so that if a ball flies toward your face, your brain can make the rapid calculation needed to send signals to your muscles so you can move your head out of the way. In the same way, the game helps with your strength, flexibility and balance. 

Getting multiple health benefits from such an accessible sport might seem too good to be true — but Hagen says the ease of ability to pick up the sport is part of why she decided to start playing.  

“I started playing pickleball a few years ago, and I find it to be a fun sport I can play with the whole family,” says Hagen. 

Even in low-intensity games, pickleball can still be a full-body workout. And the physical health benefits of pickleball are just where it begins — pickleball can be a great way to meet friends or improve your mental health. 

Keep your door ajar for new pickleball friendships  

Julia Jones, a portfolio manager at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, says she often plays pick-up games at local neighborhood courts. 

“Pickleball is fantastic for mental and emotional health since it is a wonderful opportunity for social connection,” says Jones. “Playing pickleball outside is also a fun way to get some fresh air.” 

Jones also emphasizes that pickleball is a great way to build community. 

“It’s a multigenerational sport which is unique and fun. There’s typically time between games to get to know the other players, and it builds community when we win, lose and learn together,” says Jones. “There’s often a lot of laughter on the pickleball courts, which definitely brings people together.” 

If you’re looking to start playing pickleball, Jones recommends visiting a neighborhood court, observing some games and then jumping in — it can also be helpful to ask for pointers from the people you meet at the courts.  

“One day, I was playing on the same team as a very experienced and humble pickleball player. She took me under her wing and kindly gave me some excellent pointers and encouragement during the game. It’s wonderful people like this pickleball mentor that keep me coming back to the court,” says Jones. 

If you’ve been toying with hopping on the pickleball court, maybe this is your sign. If you’re looking for a low-stakes sport that has Pacific Northwest origins, creates a space to make friends in the community and is a good workout for everyone in the family, consider the fun sport with the funny name.