Looking for an exercise that gets your heart pumping and strengthens muscles in your legs, arms, and core? Tennis and other racquet sports can serve up all those benefits and more. In fact, several long-running studies have linked racquet sports to a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and a longer life.
"Playing tennis is an amazing workout. And no matter how good you are, you can have fun doing it," says Joe DiVincenzo, a physical therapist at Harvard-affiliated Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital and former competitive tennis player.
In general, racquet sports engage muscles throughout your upper and lower body, which challenges your heart. During a match, you do frequent, short bursts of high-intensity activity interspersed with less vigorous movements — a perfect example of interval training. Also known as HIIT (high-intensity interval training), this workout strategy seems to be a good way to boost cardiovascular fitness.
Playing tennis burns about twice as much energy per hour as brisk walking. And if you play with a partner who's evenly matched, it's easy to spend several hours on the court, says DiVincenzo.
The other nice thing about tennis is that you can keep playing well into your later years. "What older players lose in mobility, they often make up for with skill from years of practice, and that's what keeps them competitive," he adds.
If you're a beginner, it's best if you can take a few lessons. You don't need to spend a lot on your first racquet, but it helps to invest in lots of balls and a ball hopper, a portable wire basket for picking up balls, advises DiVincenzo.
There's no need to join a tennis club; many communities have neighborhood tennis courts. Check with your local parks and recreation department or community center for classes.
If you want a slightly slower-paced game, check out pickleball, one of the fastest-growing sports among older adults.
This hybrid sport is a mix of tennis, table tennis and badminton. The lightweight paddles are a bit bigger than those used to play Ping-Pong, and the plastic pickleball travels at about one-third the speed of a tennis ball, making it easier to see and hit.
The game is played both indoors and outdoors, on a small court (20 feet by 44 feet, about the size of a badminton court), and the net is shorter than a tennis net. As with tennis, you can play singles or doubles, and the close proximity to other players means it's a good way to socialize while exercising.
Pickleball has become a staple at many YMCAs and senior community centers. You can find places to play at the website of the USA Pickleball Association (www.usapa.org).
Low-impact racquet sports
Two lower-key racquet sports, table tennis (Ping-Pong) and badminton, may be more accessible to the average person.
You might even be able to play at home, provided you have the space. Ping-Pong tables take up a lot of room, but you can buy a small retractable net, paddles, and balls to play on your own table.
If badminton is more your speed, you don't necessarily need a net — just a couple of racquets, a birdie, some open outdoor space, and a partner. The important thing is finding a fun way to be active, no matter what your level of fitness.
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