Being active is good for you no matter what. But when that activity takes place amid greenery and sunny skies, you reap extra physical and psychological advantages, according to a number of groundbreaking studies. “Since both exercise and nature improve your health, when you add them together, you double the benefits,” says Eva Selhub, M.D., coauthor of Your Brain on Nature. Which is exactly where pickleball comes in: It’s a sport that provides quality time in open air. Whether you’re surrounded by lush greenery while playing at a country club, resort, park, or your own backyard, you’re not just having fun, you’re actually changing your body and brain for the better. Here, we explain those wellness effects, plus the many ways to maximize them—and why winning just comes naturally.
Nature Makes Us Nicer
Mood factors in here, too—after all, when we’re in a better mood, we tend to be kinder to others. However, the relationship between nature and altruism may be more complex. In a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers asked a group of students to stare at either a tall building or a large eucalyptus tree for one minute. Those who looked at the tree reported feelings of awe, and when a researcher intentionally dropped a handful of pens to see who would pick them up, the tree viewers picked up more pens than those looking at the city vista. Another study that appeared in Environment and Behavior echoed these results, finding that people who had walked among a few plants were more likely to help someone find a lost glove than a group who just mingled around the entrance of a park.
Sunlight is a Mood Booster
Direct sunlight in your eyes may not be good for your serve, but those rays help your state of mind. Sunlight can increase levels of the brain’s feel-good chemical, serotonin, and higher serotonin levels correlate with a sunnier outlook on life, according to research. (There are light-sensing cells in our retinas, so when sunlight hits our eyes, it triggers the production of serotonin. But just to be clear, looking directly at the sun is still a very bad idea!) One new study from Australia’s Monash University found that spending more time outside, in natural light, was associated with fewer depressive symptoms and better sleep. Since a positive outlook is related to better athletic performance, improving your mood will also improve your game.
Trees Can Tame Stress
Rustling leaves. Rolling green pastures. Blooming flowers. Just thinking about nature can be a salve. But research indicates that it’s actually seeing and smelling trees that can lower levels of stress hormones (adrenaline and cortisol) and blood pressure, leading us to feel more chill. A study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health shows that gazing at trees and green spaces may support relaxation and recovery. Also, certain trees—like oak, cedar, locust, and pine— emit airborne organic compounds called phytoncides. “When they travel through our nasal passages, it can lower the production of cortisol and reduce anxiety,” explains Selhub. Whenever you’re feeling on edge during a match, calm your nerves by breathing in nature’s scents and taking a moment to appreciate the scenery.
A Natural Scene Sharpens Focus
Being in an urban environment or crowded enclosed space can flood the brain with stimuli, causing mental fatigue. Spending time in nature is a meditation for the mind, allowing it to better focus and retain memories, and this restorative experience improves overall cognition. Researchers at the University of Michigan found this to be true when study participants scored 20 percent higher on a memory test after walking in a natural environment. “Exercise increases blood flow to the brain, which sharpens awareness. Couple that with the serotonin that you get from being in nature, and your ability to focus improves even more,” says Selhub. When things aren’t going your way in a match, you need to be able to refocus— and seeing the forest through the trees is just the way to do it.
Green Spaces Increase Stamina
Exercising outdoors tends not to feel as hard as when you’re doing the same thing inside. A review in Extreme Physiology and Medicine describes one study where participants walked faster outdoors than inside yet reported a lower rating of perceived exertion. “We haven’t fully established the mechanism behind the reduction in perceived effort. However, we speculate that the natural environment acts as a distraction so we don’t internalize our thoughts and focus on the exercise effort,” says study author Jo Barton, Ph.D. Being in nature also helps to numb pain, according to another study, allowing you to persevere despite side stitches and shin splints. When an activity feels easier, you want to push harder and go longer, resulting in an improved game.
Serene Settings raise Confidence
Often, it’s not the better team that wins a match, but the more confident team—the pair who believe in themselves. Being outside breeds this kind of self-assurance, according to a study from the Journal of Integrative Environmental Sciences. When British researchers asked study participants to walk through four National Trust sites (parks), the subjects’ self-esteem scores were significantly higher after leaving the parks than upon arrival, suggesting that simply being outside in a natural setting boosts our self-worth. When you’re feeling shaky before some stiff competition, take a wander outdoors to get your head back in that winning mind frame.
Outdoor Games Foster Friendship and Social Connections
The downside of pickleball: You need to find other people to play with. The upside of pickleball: You need to find other people to play with. Adults who are more socially connected are healthier and live longer, finds a review of studies published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior. In fact, the risk of death among men and women with few social ties was more than twice as high as those with the most social ties. “In addition, one’s social network, social influence, social support, and social engagement affect a broad range of psychological states, such as self-esteem and happiness,” says Amy Chan Hyung Kim, Ph.D., associate professor in the department of sport management at Florida State University, who worked on a study on this topic. Pickleball is an excellent activity for fostering social interactions, agrees Jonathan Casper, Ph.D., an associate professor in the department of parks, recreation, and tourism management at North Carolina State University. “My research has found that pickleball helps participants create more overall social connections while playing, as well as continued interaction outside of a game.” Scheduling a standing weekly pickleball game or clinic outside is an excellent way to meet and bond with friends—and keep you healthy and happy in the long-term.
Sustain Your Game
The earth serves us in so many ways. Here’s how you can return the favor.
1. Buy recyclable balls. Cheetah pickleballs are made from low-density polyethylene (LDPE), a type of plastic that can be recycled. Find them at picklrz.com.
2. Play with a sustainable paddle. The faces of Revolin Sports paddles are made from hemp and flax fibers, and the paddles are considered to be 60 percent sustainable by weight (revolinsports.com).
3. Get a grip. Reduce waste by repairing your old, broken paddle. It may be as simple as getting a new grip. Try the biodegradable EcoGRIP Overgrip (www.ecogripzone.com).
4. Make a trade. When you trade in an old but still functional PROLITE Sports pickleball paddle, the company will give you a 35-percent-off code that can be put toward your next PROLITE paddle purchase, and your used racquet will be donated to a child as part of the company’s Pickleball Youth Program (www.prolitesports.com/trade-in-program).
5. Stand up for sustainability. Urge your pickleball club to provide glass and plastic recycling bins near the courts, and ask them to use cardboard or paper cups, straws, and other sustainable products in restaurants, pro shops, and clubhouses.