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Unlocking Success On and Off the Pickleball Court

functional medicine information Apr 02, 2024

By Jennifer Engels, MD

Pickleball, currently one of the nation's fastest-growing sports, has become more than just a pastime for me—it's a secret weapon for maintaining physical and mental well-being. This low-impact game combines enjoyable competition with a healthy, active lifestyle, making it an ideal activity for people of all ages. My journey with pickleball began a few years ago during the pandemic, providing a much-needed outlet for staying in shape, connecting with others, and enjoying the outdoors.

As a Functional Medicine Doctor, I've discovered a winning formula that enhances not only my performance on the court but also my overall health. By integrating my passion for pickleball with functional medicine support, I've witnessed improvements in muscle tone, athleticism, and cardiovascular health. I've condensed my success into four keys that can elevate your game and contribute to a healthier lifestyle.

Five General Benefits of Pickleball 

Before discussing ways in which I personally have benefited from pickleball, however, I want to point out the general benefits of this great sport, and the many ways anyone in reasonably good health can benefit by playing it, and there are at least five of these.

1.  Improves our heart health: Pickleball is a great form of cardiovascular exercise that gets your heart rate up. That can lead to better blood pressure and cholesterol levels, lowering your risk of heart disease. 

2. Helps prevent osteoporosis: Pickleball is a low-impact sport that is easy on the body, and it’s a great way to move and promote healthy joints, bones, and muscles. By playing pickleball, you’re helping reduce the rate of bone loss and preserving bone tissue. 

3.  Better balance and improved hand-eye coordination: Receiving and hitting the ball can definitely improve your balance and hand-eye coordination. It also helps the mind stay sharp, and moving your entire body while playing allows your joints to stay flexible.

4. Boosts your mood and mental health: Playing a sport like pickleball stimulates your brain to produce those feel-good endorphin hormones, which can help reduce anxiety, depression, and stress, elevating your mind and mental health. Learning a new sport with new rules helps us exercise our neuroplasticity, which is good for our brain health.

5. Social connections: Pickleball is played on a relatively small court, and that in itself encourages social interaction and connectivity. Combining movement, making new friends, and social interaction can help elevate your mood and promote your general mental health. 

With those words of general introduction to pickleball, I want to point out the ways in which I have benefitted from taking up this new sport. 

As I have said, I've condensed my success into four keys that can elevate your game if you take up pickleball and contribute to a healthier lifestyle.

First Key: Building Strong, Lean Muscle

The foundation of good health is strong, lean muscle. As we age, our bodies naturally lose muscle mass and strength, leading to a decline in physical function and an increased risk of injuries. To combat this, I incorporate resistance training into my routine, focusing on key muscle groups. With each Pickleball game lasting around 15 minutes and a match taking 30 to 60 minutes, building strong, lean muscle is crucial for stamina and resilience. My twice-weekly gym sessions include targeted exercises like leg presses, mountain climbers, power moves, and short sprints on the elliptical to enhance muscle strength and cardiovascular endurance.

Second Key: Nourishing Your Muscles with the Right Nutrients

Strengthening muscles is just one piece of the puzzle; providing them with the right nutrients is equally important. I adhere to an anti-inflammatory Mediterranean diet rich in clean proteins. My breakfast, a protein shake with 20 grams of plant-based protein, one scoop of collagen powder, frozen kale, ground flaxseed, blueberries, one tablespoon of almond butter, and one teaspoon of L-Glutamine kick-starts my day with essential nutrients. Recognizing that it's challenging to meet all nutritional needs through diet alone, I supplement strategically. Essential amino acids, in particular, play a crucial role in building strong lean muscle, serving as the building blocks of life and aiding in tissue repair.

Third Key: Optimizing Hormone Levels for Peak Performance

Optimizing hormone levels is the final piece of the puzzle for peak performance. Lower levels of androgenic hormones like free and total testosterone contribute to decreased fatigue, increased energy, stress tolerance, and muscle mass, especially as we age. Monitoring and adjusting hormone levels every three to six months, particularly testosterone, is essential. I believe in gradually returning hormones to the optimal range, promoting overall well-being. This approach has been pivotal in protecting my body and optimizing my performance on and off the court.

Fourth Key: Injury Prevention and Treatment

Pickleball-related injuries are on the rise so it is crucial to take preventive measures to try to avoid injury.  I am prone to calf injuries, so I have to make sure I warm up my calves and activate the muscles in my legs and glutes prior to playing.  My warmup consists of using a theragun (massage gun) on my calves, hamstrings, hips, lower back, elbows, and shoulders.  I do a series of bodyweight squats, bridges, and runners’ lunges to get my legs ready. Once I get to the courts, I may do a few light jogs, shuffles, skips, and high knee jogs to get my body ready to move.  

Unfortunately, despite doing my extensive warmup, I have still managed to strain my calf a number of times, so I am well-versed in various treatment modalities.  If I feel the slightest strain coming on, I will increase my intake of Omega 3’s, Turmeric, Pro-resolving Mediators, and fluid intake. I will get into my chiropractor as soon as he can get me in to do myofascial release and dry needling on the tight muscle and surrounding fascia. I will also go get Cryotherapy and cryo spot treatment on the injury for several weeks. Injecting specific peptides into and around the injury has also helped decrease the recovery time. Luckily, my treatment regimen has allowed me to recover from my various injuries and get back out on the court again in a reasonable amount of time. 

If you're eager to elevate your Pickleball game and enhance your quality of life, consider exploring the innovative solutions available through Functional Medicine. Schedule a free discovery call with the WeCare Frisco Team, and take the first step towards a healthier, more vibrant you.

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A new focus, a new path forward

“I was absolutely fascinated,” Engels says, “by this new style of medicine that saw the patient as a whole biological system rather focusing on only one organ system at a time, such as Cardiology. This was a complete paradigm shift from conventional medicine and how I was trained.”