Pickleball a hit with older exercise fans

Game invented in Washington catching on around country

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RALEIGH, N.C. — Richard Claxon usually plays pickleball three or four times a week — as long as his knees can stand it.

He is joined by former tennis players, exercise enthusiasts and those simply seeking a good time. They are all generally above the age of 50, although anyone is welcome to play.

“It’s a tremendous sport for older people,” Claxon, 72, said. He began playing a year ago and sees the game not only as exercise but also as a social outlet.

Pickleball, a racquet sport similar to tennis but played with “overgrown pingpong paddles” and a whiffle ball, originated in Washington state in 1965. The USA Pickleball Association calls it a “highly contagious, progressive and incurable disease” and estimates that there are between 40,000 and 50,000 “infected people” worldwide. The game is named after a founder’s cocker spaniel, Pickles, who would take the ball and run with it whenever it came his way.

“There are a lot of active seniors looking for exercise, camaraderie, excitement — it fits the bill,” said pickleball player Marilyn Sorin, 70. “There are a lot of active seniors that don’t enjoy bingo.”

Pickleball also addresses a subject with more serious undertones: the health of older adults. In North Carolina, for example, almost 32 percent of adults 65 and older do not participate in leisure-time physical activity, according to a report released this year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Ellen Schneider, a researcher with the UNC Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention, said exercise is “extremely important” for older adults for several reasons. Benefits of exercise include lowering blood pressure, decreasing depression, maintaining mental sharpness, preventing or delaying disease, addressing balance problems and decreasing social isolation. Exercise also helps prevent falls, she said, which are the leading cause of injury deaths for older adults.

“Anything you can do to increase exercise and decrease social isolation contributes to healthy aging,” Schneider said.