When is pickleball more than just a game? When it can potentially help seniors with their reflexes, balance and decision making.
A pilot program in Maine aims to see how older pickleball players respond to training to improve visual processing, audio processing, reflex speed and decision-making speed.
By fine-tuning the brain’s ability to process sights, sounds and other sensory information, pickleball could help seniors’ driving abilities, reflexes and balance, said Steve Raymond, 69, coach and founder of Pickleball Brain Training.
Raymond, a retired nurse who worked in senior care, as well as a pickleball player, said he became interested in how the sport could help improve not just body conditioning, but also brain responses.
“I’ve been very observant of my own age-related brain changes. But these changes aren’t written in stone. There’s a way to improve visual processing speed, audio processing speed, reflex speed and decision making speed. We can regain the youthfulness we had in our 40s,” Raymond said.
“Playing pickleball – it’s not just for pickleball. It’s for life, as well,” Raymond said.
First invented in 1965 on Bainbridge Island, Wash., as an improvised game, pickleball has grown to become the fastest-growing sport in the U.S. with more than 4.8 million players, according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association.
The pilot program comes as pickleball’s popularity surges among people of all ages — NBA basketball star LeBron James is now part owner of a major league pickleball team, football great Tom Brady is also buying an expansion team — and there’s heightened interest in ways to strengthen our bodies physically and mentally as we age.
“We’re using pickleball to help their aging brain process speed,” said Georgia Ahlers, director of racket and paddler sports at the Central Lincoln County YMCA in Damariscotta, Maine, where the pilot program is under way. “The idea is to expose them to something new in their brain so they can grow. If you don’t use it, you lose it, as they say.”
“The 21st century brain is trained to sit on the couch mostly. If you’re waking up the brain’s processing of speed, then you’re giving it a jolt to survive,” Ahlers said.
The Global Council on Brain Health, which is convened by AARP with support from Age UK, is an independent collaborative of scientists, health professionals, scholars and policy experts who found that people who participate in purposeful exercise show beneficial changes in brain structure and function. Based on epidemiological evidence, people who lead a physically active lifestyle have lower risk of cognitive decline, according to the council.
The council recommends getting 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, incorporating strength training two or more times a week and leading a physically active lifestyle. To stay motivated, it urges exercising with other people.
New data published in JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) Neurology found that just walking a lot more could cut people’s risks of developing dementia.
Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said regular physical activity can also reduce the risk of cognitive decline, including dementia. One study found that cognitive decline is almost twice as common among adults who are inactive compared to those who are active.
“We know that exercise benefits the brain. There’s years and years of study around cardiovascular health versus a sedentary lifestyle. What we can’t say is what kind of sport is better than any other,” said Sarah Lenz Lock, senior vice president for policy in AARP’s policy, research and international affairs and executive director of the Global Council on Brain Health. “We have to treat this like a drug and study the dose and duration of exercise.”
While the benefits of pickleball and brain health are still unproven, Raymond hopes to see faster visual processing and decision making skills, as well as improved balance, as benefits of the pickleball training program. That could translate into improved driving skills, Raymond said, but more study would be needed.
“If I can influence people to be more healthy and have a better quality of life, I would be pleased as punch,” Raymond said.
The pilot program has 12, two-hour sessions over the course of six weeks. There are 10 participants, a mix of men and women. All are over 55 years old.
Before the program, the participants were assessed for balance and stability and lower-body strength. Video assessments were also done to look at the participants’ form and style of playing. They will be retested after the clinic to see if there were any changes.
If the pickleball pilot program is successful, Lauren Ober, director of healthy living and member services at the YMCA in Maine, said she aims to try to replicate the clinic statewide and nationally through other YMCAs.
Pickleball is already popular with older adults. Across the U.S., more than half of core pickleball players – those who play eight or more times a week – are 55 or older and almost a third are 65 and older, the Sports and Fitness Industry Association said in its 2022 report.
Pickleball, in general, is generally affordable to play, has a smaller court and lower net than tennis so it’s easier to play. Plus, it’s fun and social.
“There’s an ease of initial play – people can go from zero skill to playing competitive games in one session,” Jonathan Casper, an associate professor and sport management program coordinator at North Carolina State University.
“It’s easy to play, but hard to master, so the fact that you can continue to get better and better is a draw. To watch someone be 65 years old and getting better at something is so cool to see,” Casper said. “It becomes addictive. It feeds self-confidence as you improve activity levels.”
Overall, having extra benefits to pickleball could be a draw for many players.
“Pickleball can be very fast paced. It’s really part of the finesse of the sport – getting more accuracy, building your stamina and muscle coordination. Fine-tuning your reflexes and hand-eye coordination is all part of it,” said Alis Ohlheiser, 65, who is a participant in the pilot program.
The social environment around pickleball, the aerobic activity, the cognitive engagement focused on a racket sport all bode well for the study, though more testing would likely be needed, experts said.
“How do we keep them coming back? How do we get them excited about a sport that’s up and coming?” Ober said. “Our brains slow down just like our bodies do. This could help us maintain at least the status quo.”