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Health Service: the hidden benefits of tennis leagues
We know tennis is good for your mental and physical well-being. A recent study shows that this goes double for league players.
Published May 12, 2022
WATCH: Studies show the communal aspects of tennis may have greater benefits than previously believed.
Peter Snell doesn’t get out on the court as much as he once did. The Westchester County, N.Y., resident plays more doubles now, and his body might feel a little stiff the morning after a match. Perhaps that sounds familiar. Yet Snell’s falloff is still highly relative compared to most of us. This year, he only joined 10 USTA league teams, rather than the 20 he used to play on back in the day.
“You keep playing, you keep meeting people, you keep getting asked to join teams,” Snell says. “What can I say, I love the competition. And my wife says if I didn’t play tennis all the time, I’d be home driving her crazy.”
As with so many league players, it isn’t just the chance to fight it out on court that appeals to Snell. Equally important is the chance to get together with teammates and opponents— by now, both of those groups include longtime friends of his—off the court. It’s been that way since he joined his first league in Ohio not long after graduating from college. Snell played No. 1 singles, and soon found himself flying with his teammates to Las Vegas for Nationals.
“You can imagine that was pretty fun for a guy in his 20s,” Snell says with a laugh. He was hooked, on the game and the league experience.
“When you’re in a tournament, you play and you leave,” Snell says. “With a team, you can have the beer afterward. Tennis has been the only thing I’ve done as a physical activity for 30 years now, and I’ve been pretty healthy.”
None of that will come as a surprise to researchers who examine the health effects of recreational sports, and in particular the health effects of tennis. In recent years, studies in Great Britain and Denmark have shown that tennis increases the average lifespan of its participants more than any other athletic activity.
In 2019, Danish scientists found that people who played tennis added an average of 9.7 years to their lives over those who were sedentary, compared to 3.7 years for cyclists, 3.2 for joggers, and 1.5 for those who worked out in health clubs.
More recently, researchers in the U.S. have narrowed their focus to the effects of tennis on players who participate in leagues. At the start of the pandemic, the Journal of Medicine and Science in Tennis published a paper entitled “Improved General Health Outcomes in U.S. Recreational Tennis Players.”
While longevity wasn’t part of the project, the results echoed and expanded on the encouraging findings of the earlier studies. Researchers surveyed 10,000 USTA league players from around the country, and asked respondents to rate themselves in eight quality-of-life categories: physical functioning; bodily pain; limitations due to physical health problems; limitations due to personal or emotional problems; general mental health; social functioning; vitality; and general health perceptions. Collecting data from league players of various ages and NTRP levels offered researchers a chance to look at a wider cross-section of people than is normal for sports-related studies.
“There is strong evidence to support the health-related quality of life benefits conferred to athletes in comparison to non-athletes,” the authors wrote. “However, the majority of athletes in these studies have focused primarily on elite groups in comparison to the general population….There is [also] little known about the health benefits of playing a specific sport.”
The study translated into numbers what long-time league players know from experience: The more you play tennis—and in particular league-oriented tennis—the healthier you’re likely to be.
“USTA league players have higher general, physical, social, and mental health scores than the general population median,” the authors wrote in their summary.
This conclusion probably won’t surprise anyone; it’s well-established that regular exercise is good for you. But drill a little deeper and some informative details reveal themselves. Taken together, the details at right reveal the real value of leagues: Not only do they get us on the court more, they get us talking to people more.
Leagues emphasize the aspect of the sport that is uniquely good for our long-term health, and which a solo activity like running or cycling can’t offer: a built-in social component. In tennis, players work out strategies with doubles partners. They form new social groups where the stakes are lower and less stress-inducing than they are in their work and home lives. The circumscribed, leave-it-on-the-court competition we get from tennis allows us to escape from the real competition we face each day.
“For both mental and physical wellbeing and longevity, we’re understanding that our social connections are probably the single most important feature of living a long, healthy, happy life,” Dr. James O’Keefe, a cardiologist at St. Luke’s Mid America Hospital in St. Louis, and one of the Denmark study’s co-authors, told Time magazine. “If you’re interested in exercising for health and longevity and well-being, perhaps the most important feature of your exercise regimen is that it should involve a play date.”
For Snell, who has 10 teams to keep track of, this is just one more advantage of the league system: It schedules his tennis dates for him.
“As long as I’m not the captain,” Snell says. “I can just show up when they tell me to.”
After that, the only thing you have to do is play tennis. As we’re finding out, that’s one of the best things anyone can do for their health.
Key findings from the 2019 study:
- Players at higher skill levels scored higher in most categories than players with less-advanced skills. Improving your game won’t just help you win more, it will make you healthier.
- League players’ mental health scores kept pace with their physical health scores; each was three to four points above the median. At a time when mental health is being prioritized, tennis can offer ways to help.
- In general, the more that people played per week, the better they felt, and the better they scored. Yet, those who reported playing six to seven times a week scored lower in the “social functioning” category than those who played slightly less often. Even tennis players need some sport-life balance, it seems.
- Women players had worse pain numbers than male players, but higher general heath and physical health scores, and lower body mass index.
- The category where tennis players generally scored the highest over the median was “Vitality” (though, again, that number dropped a little among people who reported playing nearly every day). More than anything else, it seems, tennis makes people feel good and gives them energy.