Chris Weymiller (l) and Linda DeBuhr play pickleball at the Waukon Wellness Center and Waterville Community Center. (submitted photo)
Chris Weymiller (l) and Linda DeBuhr play pickleball at the Waukon Wellness Center and Waterville Community Center. (submitted photo)
By Brittnee E. Henry

For Delbert Smith, 73, pickleball is more than exercise and entertainment.
“Pickleball saved my life,” said Smith.
Smith explained that during the height of the pandemic in 2020, he was going through his own major life change: transitioning to retirement after a lifetime of farming. Retirement included a move for Smith and his wife, Kathy, from their farm near Burr Oak to Decorah. Stepping away from the day-to-day of farming meant Smith lost the comradery and social interaction that comes with the profession. Isolation due to the pandemic compounded what Smith was feeling.
“The loneliness was just awful,” Smith said. 
At a doctor’s appointment, Smith hesitated when answering questions related to depression and loneliness. That’s when he knew he needed to find a way to have more social interaction and physical activity. Pickleball was the answer, providing a new challenge, fun and the physical activity he needed while also allowing for social distancing.
Smith’s experience is not uncommon. According to a 2020 report from the Senate Committee on Aging, studies found that social isolation, depression and anxiety among retirement age adults worsened due to COVID-19 with 73 percent reporting feelings of loneliness just one month into the pandemic. The National Academies of Science report that chronic loneliness among older adults can make existing health conditions worse and lead to other major risk factors including memory and cognitive decline, increased risk of diabetes, heart failure and hospitalizations. Maintaining social interactions and movement is essential as a person ages.
Fortunately for Smith, there was an established pickleball community for him to join. Nearly three years later, Smith has made new friends of all ages, stayed physically active, and overcome the challenges of loneliness thanks to pickleball. Today, he plays the sport indoors at Luther College and outdoors at the public tennis courts in Decorah near John Cline Elementary.
“I play as much as I can. I just love it,” Smith said.
According to the 2022 Sports & Fitness Industry report, more than half (52 percent) of pickleball players who reported playing eight or more times per year 
are 55 or older, and 32.7 percent are 65-plus. Studies have found pickleball to be a well-rounded activity for older adults citing the low-impact physical nature of the game, as well as the social and psychological benefits that are especially important as people age.

Keep moving at your level
“What’s beautiful about pickleball is it can be played at many levels – high intensity or low. It’s just a great way to keep moving at whatever level you’re comfortable with,” said Chris Weymiller, 66, of Harpers Ferry. 
Pickleball is similar to tennis and badminton but played on a smaller court. A wiffle ball is used and players hit the ball with a paddle similar to that used in ping-pong. The smaller court size makes it possible to play strategically and at various intensity levels.
Weymiller plays regularly at the Waukon Wellness Center and the Waterville Community Center where she says people of all ages and levels play the sport. Weymiller began playing five years ago after her friend, Linda DeBuhr, taught her and many others in the Waukon area how to play. 
“It’s a very easy sport to learn. You don’t have to be an athlete. And it’s a great mental boost, too. I love the strategy and the competitive nature of the game. But if you don’t want to play at that intensity, that’s ok too. It’s really a game anyone can play and just have fun,” said Weymiller.
Weymiller emphasized that while the game is typically played with four people, you don’t need to show up with a partner to play. “It’s great for single people. You just modify the game for however many players you have,” Weymiller said. “If you do start playing you will be addicted. You just want to go back for more.” 
Weymiller notes that pickleball has been a great addition to her already active lifestyle that includes hiking, bicycling and walking. Pickleball helps seniors improve reflexes which can reduce the risk of falls as well as maintain mobility and agility. Weymiller encourages everyone to try it and says it’s also a sport she enjoys playing alongside her grandkids.
“When you’re getting older it’s just another great opportunity to keep moving,” said Weymiller.

It’s good for your brain, too
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, more than 6 million Americans are currently living with Alzheimer’s, a number that is expected to surge along with the proportion of American adults that reach 65 and older. Preventing the onset and progression of age-related brain decline is critical. According to a 2016 study, University of Iowa researchers in the Health, Brain and Cognition Lab found that cardiorespiratory fitness is connected to maintaining the health of key networks in the brain related to cognition and memory. Exercise through activities like pickleball that have the potential to raise a person’s heart rate above that of a leisurely walk are key to protecting and maintaining networks in the brain most vulnerable to age-related decline.
Pickleball meet-ups are popping up all over the Driftless. Contact your community wellness center or park and recreation department to learn more.