By Lindsey Townsend
If you think that the hard-charging game of tennis is only for 17-year-old superstar “wonderkids,” you’re playing on the wrong court. All that swinging, lunging, and slamming the ball past your opponent can add up to some serious fitness benefits-no matter what your age. “If you think you can’t play tennis anymore because it requires too much activity and running around, recreational doubles is the answer for you. By getting out and playing two or three times a week, you can complement other fitness programs such as walking or swimming,” says Tammi Ketler, an exercise physiologist and director of the USA TENNIS program in New York City, New York.
In fact, more than 40% of the 19.5 million recreational tennis players in the U.S. today are over age 35, according to Kurt Kamperman, president of the Tennis Industry Association in Hilton Head, South Carolina. “And the two fastest-growing groups are 25-49 year-olds and those age 50 and over,” he says.
What those Baby Boomers and seniors have discovered is that tennis can deliver the health and strength building benefits of interval training along with the fat burning advantages of aerobic exercise. “Tennis is a ‘play for life’ sport. If you can walk, you can play. If you’re participating in it for the health benefits, it doesn’t really matter what your intensity level is-it’s still good for you to get out and move,” says Amy Simpson, 1999 International Health, Racquet and Sportclub Association Fitness Director of the year. According to LGE Sport Science in Orlando, Florida, three hours of moderate tennis per week will burn 1397 calories, and competitive tennis burns even more.
Another advantage of tennis, even for novices, is that it works all the major muscle groups, particularly the quads, hamstrings, shoulders and upper arms. “For intermediate and advanced players, the sport is very aerobic, but that doesn’t mean that beginners can’t get benefits from it. People are concerned about getting a good workout from their game today, much more than they used to be,” says Tim Barnard, USPTA-certified tennis pro at Brookhaven Racquet Club in Dallas, Texas. In response to that trend, Brookhaven offers popular classes in Beginner Aerobic Tennis that provide a challenging total-body workout through non-stop drills and practice. “The students are on the move for an hour and a half, but they still get to learn,” Barnard says. Tennis offers psychological benefits as well. In fact, it outperforms other sports in developing positive personality characteristics, including spontaneity, competitiveness, and mental focus, according to Jim Gavin, Ph.D. of Concordia University and author of The Exercise Habit.
Tennis does have one major downside, however. All of that start-and-stop action can be pretty tough on joints and tendons. “The real hidden costs of this game, among those who passionately play it, are the injuries, like sprained ankles, pulled muscles, and bad backs,” says Annemarie Marek, an amateur USTA member and 1998 4.0 Women's Doubles Winner. To help avoid problems, it’s smart to come to the court in good shape. “Spend some time working the lower body with weight training and range-of-motion exercises. Strong thigh muscles will help protect knees and ankles from pounding on the court and give you strength to push off at high speed,” says Ed Burke, Ph.D., director of exercise physiology at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs and Olympic athlete trainer.
In addition, basic leg exercises such as squats, leg extensions, and curls will increase strength, while ankle stretches and toe raises will keep the lower legs limber. “Leg lunges are terrific for tennis players because they bend your knees and work the quads, hamstrings, and gluts. You can also do side lunges, which imitates stepping into a tennis ball. Start with one set of 8-10 and work up to two sets after three to four weeks,” says Kitler. Court tip: while playing, instead of scooping the ball up with your racquet, squat down to pick it up, which will help flexibility in the legs and groin. You can also cross-train with an aerobic sport like cycling to toughen up knee joints.
While you’re training, don’t forget to add some upper body exercises, including wrist curls and dumbbell work, and include some oblique crunches to strengthen the back and give you more power for your swing. “To help specifically with serving and shoulder strength, try lat raises and lat pulls. Since tennis is a one-handed game, don’t forget that it’s important to work the other side of your body as well,” says Kitler. You can even use your duffel bag as a free weight to strengthen deltoids. Hold it in one hand as if it were a dumbbell, and extend your arm out from body without bending your elbow. Do 8-12 reps, then switch sides. Experts say that jumping rope is also excellent for tennis players to improve foot speed and increase stamina. Try to work up to 15 minutes a day.
Once you’re out on the court, always take the time to warm up slowly before you play, hitting the balls lightly and allowing your muscles to warm up through all of the stroke movements. “Being fully hydrated, warming up, and stretching before and after your game will go a long way to avoiding injury, especially for older players,” says Barnard. Finally, to avoid the dreaded tennis elbow, which is usually caused by incorrect form, get some good instruction. The USA Tennis program, sponsored by the United States Tennis Association, offers reasonably priced lessons for adults and children nationwide this summer. Visit their website at www.usta.com and click on the USA Sections button to find a phone number for a local facility near you.
When selecting an instructor, be sure to look for someone who is enthusiastic as well as knowledgeable. “I’d look for a USPTA or USPTR certified pro who’s experienced at teaching. And remember, just because someone was a great player doesn’t mean that they’ll be a good teacher,” warns Kamperman. Once you’re got a few lessons under your belt, you can play and practice for free or a nominal fee, since public courts are available in most cities and towns. “Tennis is a fun sport that doesn’t require a lot of structure to play. It’s easy to find one partner. If you have a racquet, balls, and a friend, you’re good to go,” says Simpson. “You can play a game in an hour and get a good workout,” says Kamperman. “And it sure beats sitting on a Lifecycle reading a magazine!”