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CNN Thinks Pickleball is Dangerous. As a Physical Therapist, I Know Not Playing is More Dangerous.

I want to talk about the pros and cons of exercise. CNN recently published an article discussing the rise of pickleball in terms of both participation and healthcare costs. A direct quote from the article:

“While we generally think of exercise as positively impacting health outcomes, the ‘can-do’ attitude of today’s seniors can pose greater risk in other areas such as sports injuries, leading to a greater number of orthopedic procedures,” the analysts said.

These analysts are not doctors nor public health experts. They are not even insurance companies. Instead they work for UBS which is a multinational investment and finance company. The first problem with this article is that they are turning a health and lifestyle topic into a financial debate.

There is a known phenomenon that the human brain is not able to understand large numbers. The CNN article states that pickleball injuries will cost Americans nearly $400 million health care costs this year. $400 million is a staggering number, but let’s compare it to some other numbers. Interestingly, the CNN article states that 22 million people will play pickleball this year. Dividing 400 million into 22 million comes out to 18.18. That means that the healthcare cost for each person playing pickleball is $18.18 per year.

There are numerous benefits to exercise. The CDC says,

“Being physically active can improve your brain health, help manage weight, reduce the risk of disease, strengthen bones and muscles, and improve your ability to do everyday activities.”

What if I told you that there was something you could do for $18.18 per year that research shows improved your brain health, reduced risk of disease, strengthened your bones and muscles, and made everyday activities easier? Of course most of you reading this would probably say, “Sign me up!” It’s cheaper than nearly every gym membership, organized sport, or even a copay for a doctor’s visit.

Pickleball rackets used to exercise and stay healthy in Sterling, Virginia

If we are going to go down the rabbit hole of healthcare expenditures then let’s actually look at some other figures. Incurring $400 million for choosing to play pickleball seems like a big burden for our healthcare system in the United States. What if I told you that people are spending $10 billion per year on just one type of elective surgery? Folks, let’s talk about lumbar fusions. A study found that in 2015 the United States spent over $10 billion for elective lumbar fusions at a cost of over $50,000 per patient.

I mentioned before that humans are terrible at comprehending large numbers. 10 billion is 25 times greater than 400 million. People were costing our healthcare system 25 times more money in 2015 (numbers have probably gone up since then) on elective lumbar fusions compared to the predicted cost of pickleball injuries in 2023.

As a Doctor of Physical Therapy I will tell you that lumbar fusions do not provide improvement to your brain health, disease risk, bones and muscle strength, or improve your ability to do everyday activities. In fact, they probably make those worse. However, no one bats an eye when we spend $50,000 per elective lumbar fusion compared to $18.18 per year for people to play pickleball. In case you were wondering, 50,000 is 2,750 times greater than 18.18.

Pickleball rackets and a court to play on to stay healthy and maintain fitness

Putting the numbers argument aside, this article is creating more fear with exercise. Let me tell you, a lot of people are already scared to exercise. They are scared because they know someone who got hurt; they are scared that they will be sore afterwards; they are scared because “what if I look like an idiot the first time I play pickleball?”

We have a huge problem in this country with the professionalization of sports. I work with many youth athletes who struggle with simply playing sports for fun because they are told at 9 years old they need to be on the best travel team so they can make it as a professional. This creates burnout and you rarely see kids just play sports for fun anymore. Gone are the days of kids getting together in the park and playing.

We also have a problem with adults playing sports. We are told that once your competitive athletic career ends, you transition to working out in the gym, doing Pilates, walking your dog, or sitting on the couch talking about your glory days. There is nothing wrong with going to the gym or doing Pilates, but some people just want to get out and play sports. There is camaraderie in getting together with friends and hitting a little plastic ball back and forth. Some people don’t want to load up a barbell and do 3 sets of 10 squats, but instead they want to play pickleball for a half hour with their friends after work. We should be encouraging this!

The healthcare crisis in this country does not come from folks spraining their ankle while playing pickleball. It comes from the fact that people do not have the time, means, or space to exercise in a way that is enjoyable to them. The best workout is one that you like and will do repeatedly. Creating fear because pickleball might result in a trip to the ER is not worth it. We need to do better and encourage people to move in ways that they love!

If you are in the Northern Virginia area and do suffer an injury, feel free to reach out and stop by our office in Sterling, Virginia. We specialize in getting people back to doing what they love as quickly as possible so that they can beat their friends in pickleball!


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