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Can pickleball, tennis and other racquet sports really help you live longer?

Research suggests that picking up a racquet could be hugely beneficial, but the evidence for the long-term health effects of specific sports is lacking.

A person wearing a blue sweatshirt hitting a tennis ball with a neon green racquet.
Research suggests that picking up a racquet might be among the best decisions a person can make for their health. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Racquet sports are clearly having a moment. The pickleball revolution is continuing apace, with partnerships, leagues and playing courts springing up seemingly by the day. And in a world without Roger Federer and Serena Williams, tennis has maintained its popularity among most age groups, new polling suggests.

What’s more, research suggests that picking up a racquet might be among the best decisions a person can make for their health, according to two oft-cited studies. One involving roughly 80,000 people showed that racquet sports were correlated with a reduction in all-cause mortality; another that compared racquet sports to other forms of exercise found that participants who played tennis and — yes — badminton lived longer than cyclists, soccer players, joggers and swimmers. 

But evidence for the long-term health effects of specific sports, the studies acknowledge, is lacking. So, Northeastern Global News asked Art Kramer, psychology professor and director for the Center for Cognitive and Brain Health, who studies exercise and its effects on the body and brain, for some perspective on these findings and the larger literature.

His comments have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Headshot of Art Kramer.
Art Kramer, professor of psychology and director of the Center for Cognitive and Brain Health, weighs in on the health effects of playing racquet sports. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

The Copenhagen City Heart Society found that badminton adds an average of 6.2 years to one’s life relative to an inactive person, and tennis adds nearly a decade at 9.7. It’s a frequently cited study. What do you make of it?

First of all, it was an observational study which means that we cannot establish a causal relationship between playing racquet sports and a longer life. But if I had to speculate about why they might have seen the benefits they saw for racquet sports, one possibility is that not only do they involve good exercise to the extent you don’t take a lot of breaks in between play — and in tennis and pickleball, you play for sometimes long periods of time — but that it’s also very social, right? If there is a connection between racquet sports and somewhat better levels of mortality and perhaps brain health, that might be due to the fact that it’s not simply exercise, it’s exercise with others — and social interaction has been found to have benefits for cognitive and brain health.

But there could be a variety of factors involved that we can’t see, which is often the case in these longitudinal studies of people who participate in some of these sports. It could be that they’re just in better shape to begin with. Maybe they abstain from certain bad habits, like drinking or smoking. People who gravitate toward these kinds of sports may be very healthy to begin with, and I bet there’s some truth to that because if you’re having health problems, it’ll be really tough to run around on a court for an hour or two.

Why do you suppose pickleball is so popular among older folks? Is it helping them stay healthy?  

I think the fact that it’s a much smaller court, and you have two people on the court, is very appealing. If you’re a really good player and good at placing the ball, you can place it between two people, but there isn’t that much movement required to retrieve even a well-placed ball compared to the kind of movement required on a tennis court. There is not a lot of room between folks who are playing doubles tennis. I think that’s the reason the older folks play pickleball, primarily because it’s easier to move around when you can’t move around as well as you did when you were younger.

You’ve spent your career studying, among other things, the effects of exercise on brain health. Can you provide a summary of some of the key findings?

To start with, what’s good for the heart is good for the brain, and the exercise you get playing racquet sports undoubtedly helps the heart. Such exercise decreases plaque buildup in the arteries, which you don’t want; it decreases hypertension, which is often a result of high blood pressure; it tends to decrease A1C, which is a marker for glucose metabolism for type 2 diabetes; and it decreases LDL, or bad cholesterol, and increases HDL, the good cholesterol. So there are a whole variety of things that exercise does for the heart, and if the heart is working well, and the arteries aren’t clogged up with plaques, then your brain works better. 

That’s one reason that our brains function better with exercise, and there are a whole bunch of other reasons; and we know many of those other reasons because of rodent research, because we can do the histology the humans never volunteer for when they’re alive anyway. We know that exercise increases the birth of new neurons, as well as new connections among neurons; it increases the blood flow to the brain, similar to the heart; it increases nerve growth factors and a whole variety of other things — it even increases, at the molecular level, the mitochondria — the little energy factories that you have within neurons and cells in general. There are a whole multitude of changes that happen as a function of exercise — a lot of it having to do with blood flow, but not all of it.

There has been a lot of conversation about the precise level of intensity required to receive the health benefits from exercise. Do you have any thoughts about what intensity of exercise is best, and whether racquet sports like tennis and pickleball achieve those ideals?

There haven’t been that many studies that have compared different dosages within the same studies, within the same outcome measures and within the same population. In fact, we’re running one now. We’re just starting to analyze the data where we’ve looked at 650 older adults — in folks over 65 to 85 years of age. We have a control condition, which is stretching, but two aerobic conditions; one is 150 minutes a week, then the other one is 225 minutes a week, so a 50% difference. We are looking at many of these factors as a function of dose.

Currently, there just isn’t enough information to know how much exercise is enough, and that probably differs as a function of age and health. What’s enough for you might be too much for me, and kids tend to be in constant motion. What’s enough for a 10-year-old or a 12-year-old might not be something you or I can even do. In fact, that’s probably true for most adults because, simply, we all have to work. There are huge individual differences in what a person can do — it depends on people’s health; it depends on previous history; and it depends on genetics, to some extent.