Another reason to love pickleball: the popular sport can strengthen your brain

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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 honing the brain’s ability to process sights, sounds and other sensory information, pickleball could help older people’s driving skills, reflexes and balance, said Steve Raymond, 69, coach and founder of Pickleball Brain Training.

Raymond, a retired nurse who worked in aged care, as well as a pickleball player, said he was interested in how sport could help improve not just physical fitness, but also brain responses.

“I’ve been very mindful of my own age-related brain changes. But these changes are not carved in stone. There is a way to improve visual processing speed, audio processing speed, reflex speed and decision making speed. We can recapture the youth we had in our 40s,” Raymond said.

“Playing pickleball – it’s not just for pickleball. It’s also for life,” Raymond said.

First invented in 1965 on Bainbridge Island, Washington, as an improvised game, pickleball has become the fastest growing sport in the United States with more than 4.8 million players, according to Sports and Fitness. Industry Association.

The pilot program comes as pickleball’s popularity grows among people of all ages – NBA basketball star LeBron James is now co-owner of a major league pickleball team, soccer great Tom Brady is also buying a expansion – and there is increased interest in ways to strengthen our bodies physically and mentally as we age.

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“We’re using pickleball to help their aging brains process speed,” said Georgia Ahlers, director of racquet and paddle sports at the Central Lincoln County YMCA in Damariscotta, Maine, where the pilot program is underway. “The idea is to expose them to something new in their brains so they can grow. If you don’t use it, you lose it, as they say.

“The 21st century brain is trained to mostly sit on the couch. If you wake up the brain’s speed processing, you give 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 collaboration of scientists, health professionals, academics and policy experts who have found that people who participate in targeted exercises exhibit beneficial changes in brain structure and function. Based on epidemiological evidence, people who lead physically active lives have a lower risk of cognitive decline, the advice says.

The advice 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, he invites you to exercise with other people.

New data published in JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) Neurology has found that simply walking a lot more can reduce the risk of developing dementia.

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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 in inactive adults as in active ones.

“We know exercise is good for the brain. There are years and years of studies on cardiovascular health versus a sedentary lifestyle. What we can’t say is what type one sport is better than another,” said Sarah Lenz Lock, senior vice president of policy, research, and international affairs at AARP and executive director of the Global Council on Brain Health. “We need to address this. as a drug and study the dose and duration of exercise.”

Although the benefits of pickleball and brain health are not yet proven, Raymond hopes to see faster visual processing and decision-making skills, as well as better balance, as benefits of the pickleball training program. . This could translate to improved driving skills, Raymond said, but more studies would be needed.

“If I can influence people to be healthier and have a better quality of life, I would love it,” Raymond said.

The pilot program consists of 12 two-hour sessions spread over six weeks. There are 10 participants, a mix of men and women. All are over 55 years old.

Prior to the program, participants were assessed for balance and stability and lower body strength. Video assessments were also conducted to examine participants’ form and style of play. 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 membership services at the YMCA of Maine, said she aims to try and replicate the clinic statewide and nationwide. nationally through other YMCAs.

Pickleball is already popular with older people. In the United States, more than half of top pickleball players — those who play eight or more times a week — are 55 or older and nearly a third are 65 or 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 a lower net than tennis, so it’s easier to play. Plus, it’s fun and social.

“There’s an initial ease of play – people can go from zero skill to playing competitive games in a single session,” Jonathan Casper, associate professor and coordinator of the sports management program at North Carolina State University.

“It’s easy to play, but hard to master, so the fact that you can keep improving is a draw. Watching someone turn 65 and improve at something is so cool to see,” said Casper: “It gets addictive. It builds self-confidence as you improve activity levels.”

All in all, having extra pickleball perks could be a draw for many players.

“Pickleball can be very fast. It’s really part of the finesse of the sport – getting more precision, developing your endurance and muscle coordination. Refining your reflexes and hand-eye coordination is part of it,” said Alis Ohlheiser, 65, who is participating in the pilot program.

The social environment around pickleball, aerobic activity, cognitive engagement focused on a racquet sport bode well for the study, although more testing is likely needed, the experts said.

“How can we bring them back? How can we get them excited about a growing sport? Ober said. “Our brain slows down just like our body. That might help us at least maintain the status quo.

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