Prescribe pickleball for Parkinson's

By Kristen Fuller, MD | Fact-checked by Barbara Bekiesz
Published April 17, 2024

Key Takeaways

  • Exercise is an important treatment modality to improve balance, coordination, and fine motor skills in patients with Parkinson’s disease. 

  • Pickleball is a cross between tennis, badminton, and ping pong; it is also low-impact, making it popular among older adults.

  • Think about writing your patients a "pickleball prescription," as it has been shown to improve physical and cognitive symptoms of Parkinson’s disease while promoting socialization.

Pickleball, a cross between tennis, badminton, and ping-pong, is a low-impact sport that has become increasingly popular—especially among older adults.

For people diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, pickleball can be a lifesaver, as it has shown to improve cognitive function and promote socialization.

Now, doctors are writing “pickleball prescriptions” for their Parkinson’s patients to encourage physical activity that can improve fine motor skills, balance, mobility, and coordination. 

Prescribing exercise in Parkinson’s treatment

Parkinson’s disease is the second most common age-related neurodegenerative disease in the US, affecting approximately 90,000 people each year.[] It ordinarily begins later in life, affecting people 60 or older.[] This disorder presents gradually, with motor and non-motor deficits, from impaired coordination to memory loss.

Treatment primarily lies in the form of pharmacologic therapy that increases the levels of dopamine in the brain; however, over time, the effectiveness of these medications can plateau. 

As a result, treatment is multifactorial, meaning that other therapies, primarily physical exercise, can also help improve symptoms, particularly those associated with muscle rigidity, coordination, motor performance, and cognitive function.

Studies have shown that exercise is also neuroprotective in individuals with Parkinson’s disorder.[]

As the American Parkinson Disease Association explains:[] “Although there are many clinical trials of potential medications that may offer neuroprotection, as of now there is no FDA approved medication that can do this. Therefore, our best bet is exercise.”

Pickleball requires players to change the length and speed of their stride, meaning it can improve the shuffling gait seen in Parkinson's. It can also improve balance, as it requires directional changes on the court. The trunk rotation required to hit the ball can help improve axial rigidity, and overhead hits can improve muscle flexibility.

Why pickleball is trending

It’s clear that pickleball is trending among active seniors, who make up more than half of the pickleball-playing population.[] A study published in the International Journal of Aging and Human Development explored the physical, mental, and social aspects of pickleball on senior citizens.[] Results showed “that engaging in pickleball is a promising means of achieving a healthy life as a senior citizen."

"The participants maintained a physically and mentally active lifestyle through pickleball, and their commitment to this sport led to their engagement as ambassadors in their communities."

International Journal of Aging and Human Development

Another study examined the association between pickleball players and cognitive function in community-dwelling older adults.[] Results showed that advanced pickleball players had better divided visual attention, multiple object tracking, and simple reaction time performance compared to inactive controls, supporting the hypothesis that pickleball can enhance cognitive function in older adults. 

Encourage your Parkinson's patients to play pickleball—it isn't just another form of physical therapy, it’s also a fun and engaging way to improve movement, coordination, and cognitive function.

What this means for you 

Although there is no cure for Parkinson’s disease, tailoring your patient's treatment to their needs, lifestyle, and specific symptoms can help them navigate this difficult disease while improving quality of life. Keeping up with lifestyle trends, such as pickleball among senior citizens and individuals with Parkinson's, can be beneficial to both your patients and your practice. Instead of sending your patients to physical therapy or other less-enticing interventions, they may be more likely to honor a “pickleball prescription”—which has been shown to improve cognitive ability and physical fitness, improving quality of life among individuals with Parkinson’s. 

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