How resolutions to get healthy playing sports can sometimes have opposite effect

Anytime orthopedic surgeon Dr. Matthew Counihan gets data about people exercising more, he’s applauding it. That’s the name of the game for a health care practitioner: Getting people moving around, giving their cardiovascular systems an adequate workout.

And the name of the game, in recent years: pickleball. It’s a sport you might have heard of — or heard the thwapping sounds associated with this all-the-rage racket sport being played at a local park.

Counihan, a sports medicine specialist affiliated with Hackensack Meridian Health, is well aware of the popularity of pickleball, which Sports & Fitness Industry Association reports have named the country’s fastest-growing sport for three years running. And, around the time people are setting New Year’s fitness goals, he’s expecting to hear even more about it.

Dr. Matthew Counihan. (Hackensack Meridian Health)

“People making resolutions involving more activity are definitely going to drift to a sport like pickleball,” he said. “It’s attractive to folks right now. It’s incredibly accessible.”

That accessibility has meant upwards of a third of the sport’s participants are approaching retirement age or past it, according to various surveys. It’s also a double-edged sword, suggests Counihan.

“It encourages folks to join up who have not been in a sport or used to warming up before activity, more of what you might call your weekend warriors who aren’t active during the week,” he said. “And that’s where we start to see risk of injuries.”

Generally speaking, Counihan said sports injuries do increase after New Year’s Day until about March. When it comes to pickleball specifically, analysts have noted year-round injuries attributed to the sport. Analysts have estimated it could lead to upwards of $500 million in health care spending in the U.S.

The fact that the demographic picking up pickleball paddles is more prone to injury to begin with plays a part in that, Counihan said.

The joints — wrists, elbows, shoulders, hips, knees, ankles — are the locations that people tend to suffer injuries in a sport that involves quick, pivoting motions.

“I think about the rotator cuff (in the shoulder) and the Achilles (heel tendon) when people try to turn and explode by activating those calf muscles suddenly,” he said. “Especially for people who are largely sedentary the rest of the week, that tendon you’re asking a lot of at that moment is at a high risk of injury.”

Whether it’s a New Year’s resolution or a longstanding hobby, sports such as pickleball should be supplemented with an ongoing conditioning, stretching and strengthening regimen to mitigate some of that injury risk, he added.

“The more you do that, the more compliant the tissues are when you put them under maximal stress suddenly,” Counihan said. “People who want to take up a new sport are beholden to keeping the joints and tendons limber, activated and conditioned. That could be something light, such as walking or stretching, done several times a week. So that, when you play on the weekend, you’re not doing it totally cold.”

It’s part of the mindful, cautious and pragmatic approach Counihan advocates people take to physical activities embraced during the “great moment of motivation” the turning of the calendar year represents.

Explore a sport that appeals to you, Counihan said. Because the only way to get benefits from goal-setting is to stick with it.

“Chose resolutions wisely,” he said. “Don’t extend yourself. You might want to do a lot of things at once: Drop 20 pounds, run a half-marathon, plus something else. That can be a recipe to overexert yourself, bail on resolutions or possibly set yourself up for an injury risk.

“And, also, listen to your body. Any fitness or health goal you’re making for yourself is only going to be successful if rest days are built into it.”