Growing up, my parents taught us that the best activities are the ones that you can enjoy your entire life. As the senior tennis champion of Madison, Wis., my mother set a good example. According to a meta-analysis published in The British Journal of Sports Medicine, tennis may be a good fitness fit for almost anyone because of its wide range of health benefits across the age spectrum.
Studies retrieved in the journal's review showed that playing tennis regularly can boost your heart and lung function, rev up fat-burning, streamline your coordination and balance, and strengthen your bones.
In our book, "Faster, Better, Stronger: Your Fitness Bible," my co-author, exercise performance physician Massimo Testa, M.D., and I list tennis as a good choice for moderate aerobic exercise, but this research takes it up a notch, noting that singles tennis can provide a vigorous workout, and ranking it among the top five activities in terms of energy expenditure -- higher than swimming, rowing, weightlifting, Jazzercise, hiking or golf.
Researchers found that 7- to 12-year-old tennis players had superior cardiovascular endurance compared with age-matched casual sports participants. Exercise-related oxygen use and capacity diminishes with advancing age, but tennis appears to decrease the rate of age-related decline. Even moderate-intensity tennis players ages 30 to 74 showed better overall lung function. Tennis players also proved metabolically more fit, with improved lipid metabolism and lower incidence of hyperlipidemia (the single most meaningful predictor of coronary heart disease). Tennis players over 55 also sported significantly better blood cholesterol profiles.
In study after study, tennis was found to bolster bones (primarily the humerus of the dominant arm, lumbar spine and femoral neck) in both sexes and in all ages. Those who started playing at a young age showed a stronger correlation than those who started at an older age, but healthier bones were maintained even after players decreased their participation. Tennis also was found to enhance both gross and fine motor control, and -- in players ages 7, 10, 13 and 23 -- it accelerated the development of timing accuracy. In an analysis of the impact of aging on coordination using tennis players and non-players ages 20-80, non-players showed an increasing decline in their ability to respond with advancing age, while tennis players showed no decline in response at different ages. Researchers even cited evidence that in honing focus, tennis outperforms golf, running, weight lifting, inline skating and downhill skiing.
In terms of healthy lifestyle, tennis players rated equal to runners, joggers and fast walkers in their reduced likelihood to be obese, smoke, consume large quantities of alcohol or drive without seat belts when compared with those who participate in team sports and an aggregate of other sports.
Researchers spotlighted another little-known fringe bennie of tennis: better emotional well-being. Tennis players scored higher in vigor, optimism and self-esteem and scored lower in depression, anger, confusion, anxiety and tension than other athletes and non-athletes.
Perhaps most interesting were the conclusions researchers reached based on a study of more than a thousand students in medical school between 1948 and 1964. At the start, the students were asked to rate their ability in tennis, golf, football, baseball and basketball. Researchers assessed these students again 22 years later and then again 40 years later and found that tennis was the only sport in which a greater ability during medical school was associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease.
Researchers credit this benefit to the fact that tennis was the sport played most often through midlife. In fact, half the tennis players were still participating in the sport in midlife, compared with only a quarter of those who had reported playing golf and none who had reported playing baseball, basketball or football.
For tips on how to choose a tennis racket, go to www.fasterbetterstronger.com.
( Eric Heiden, M.D., a five-time Olympic gold medalist speed skater, is now an orthopedic surgeon in Utah. He co-authored "Faster, Better, Stronger: Your Fitness Bible" (HarperCollins) with exercise performance physician Max Testa, M.D., and DeAnne Musolf. www.heidenothopaedics.com)Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun