As the popularity of pickleball has soared, it’s earned a certain reputation: “tennis for old people.” Since the game moves at a slower pace and takes place on a smaller court than tennis, pickleball has definitely gained a following among seniors and older adults. But the truth is that it can be a great workout for people of any age. Want proof? As part of the ongoing Apple Heart and Movement Study, Apple and Brigham and Women’s Hospital (an affiliate of Harvard Medical School) just released some stats comparing the health metrics between 4,799 pickleball and 7,780 tennis players, as recorded on their Apple Watches during more than 250,000 games over the course of 32 months.
What do the pickleball vs tennis stats show?
Overall, most of the metrics between the games were fairly similar, with just some slight variations between the two. Duration: The researchers found the average length of a pickleball workout was slightly longer than tennis workouts (90 minutes versus 81 minutes, respectively), and they saw greater variability in the time amount of time played. Intensity: Analyzing heart rate data from the Apple Watch, researchers found that peak heart rate averaged 152 beats per minute in tennis compared to 143 beats per minute in pickleball, a difference of nine beats per minute. Tennis players also spent nine percent more time in higher-intensity heart rate zones. Related Stories Consistency: There was more seasonal variation in the number of tennis games played throughout the year, while the number of pickleball workouts steadily rose throughout the entire time period studied (and surpassed the number of tennis games starting in July 2023). Photo: Apple Mental health effects: All study participants were asked on a quarterly basis to fill out a mental health survey, which includes a depression screening tool. The average scores from both frequent pickleball and tennis players showed they were less likely to be depressed than the overall population in the study.
So, what do those differences mean health-wise?
Interventional cardiologist Nadim Geloo, MD, the senior medical director of Abbott’s Structural Heart, says that physical activities like tennis and pickleball are both great ways to increase your heart rate, which can improve your overall cardiovascular health. “While people on average did play pickleball a few minutes longer than those who played tennis, the people who played tennis had a higher-intensity heart rate, which can have greater health benefits, including burning more calories and lowering cholesterol,” says Dr. Geloo. Yet he points out that these differences were ultimately rather small. “In practical terms, for most people, the slight difference in heart rate between the two activities is not likely to be relevant,” he says. “The important message is to get out and move!” The consistency with which pickleball players kept at it definitely puts a point in the pickleball court. Dr. Geloo explains that the most significant difference in the magnitude of benefits we see from exercise comes when comparing someone who does very little or no exercise to someone who meets the physical activity requirements for getting a sufficient amount of moderate-intensity exercise every week. Ultimately, Dr. Geloo says that both sports can provide great cardio workouts. “Both a short and intense workout and a longer and more sustained effort have their health benefits, but which option is right for you depends on your current health status and level of activity, as well as your long-term goals,” says Dr. Geloo. If you’re not sure which may be the right fit for you, he suggests consulting your primary care physician or cardiologist.
How can you make pickleball and tennis workouts even better for your health?
If you want to capitalize on the health benefits of pickleball and tennis, there’s a few things you can do:
Warm up first
Physicians around the country report an uptick in pickleball injuries in particular. “Just like any other physical activity, it’s important to stretch prior to playing either sport to prepare your body,” says Dr. Geloo. Exercise physiologist Carmen Van Rensburg previously told Well+Good that she recommends a five to 10-minute warm-up before a game, consisting of a little jogging then stretching all the major muscle groups you’ll use on the court: your calves, quads, hamstrings, inner thighs, lower back, shoulders, elbows, and wrists.
Keep your heart rate up
“During the short breaks between points, consider doing a mild jog in place to maintain an elevated heart rate,” suggests Dr. Geloo for those who really want to challenge the cardiovascular system and aerobic endurance. You’ll know you’re hitting the right heart rate zone if you can talk easily in short sentences and your breathing is a little heavy but not excessively so, he says.
As much important as it is to get enough exercise and play pickleball or tennis with sufficient intensity to get a good workout, Dr. Geloo says that it’s also necessary to give your body time to rest and recover after playing. “Making rest part of a consistent workout routine—and maintaining that active routine—can help with playing either sport longer and more intensely, which can contribute to long-term health benefits,” says Dr. Geloo. “Everyone is different: Whether you’re new to the sport or a seasoned pro, be sure to listen to your body and watch for signs of when it’s time to take a break or push forward.”
Keep it fun
“If it’s been a while since you exercised, don’t take on too much too fast; instead, go slow and grow!” says Dr. Geloo. “Whether you choose tennis, pickleball, or another sport, choose one that you enjoy and one that will allow you to follow a consistent routine long-term. The key is to keep it going!”