I've spent a good 35 years of my life working out regularly to maintain a reasonable fitness level and over that time I have tried many different types of exercises but one activity stands out above them all and that's playing tennis.
In this article, I'm going to detail several persuasive arguments for playing tennis in order to keep fit and healthy. You'll be surprised at how participating in a simple game of tennis can produce so many benefits without even realising you're exercising!
Firstly though, let me tell a quick story about what got me into tennis and how playing this sport influenced the rest of my life greatly in a positive way right from the beginning of my childhood. Actually, it was my early teens when I first became seriously interested in playing tennis. My uncle had constructed their own tennis court out of ant bed (similar to clay) on his farm at Groomsville near Crows Nest (not far from Toowoomba) in Queensland, Australia and I used to watch the "oldies" have a hit whenever we visited the property. This interest led to the odd game with the other kids as the adults had a rest and when I was around 12 years old turned into me becoming a regular family player once I was coordinated enough to compete at a reasonable "backyard" level.
From there, I borrowed my Aunty Dena's old Slazenger Challenge wooden racquet with a few old tennis balls and began visiting the local tennis courts at St Joseph's Christian school just a few streets away from home. I'd hit or practice serve the balls from one end to the other looking ridiculous as I obsessively jogged past the net after my own shots only to whack them away down the other end again.
One day, a young uni student named Ian, who lived in the house across from the courts, happened to see me playing tennis with myself and probably out of sheer sympathy came over and offered to give me a game. This chance encounter with Ian turned into a good 5 years of afternoon tennis rivalry and hundreds of hours battling it out on the challenging bitumen surfaced courts.
Over that time, I started getting formal coaching, competing at school, joined a club with friends playing on Saturdays, I even entered various tennis tournaments appropriate to my age level and won a few local titles. I was playing a lot of tennis and loving it without really thinking about the exercise or extra fitness/health benefits the sport was giving me.
Tennis for exercise & muscle groups used
Physically, tennis can be as demanding as a person wants it to be and I found the more I wanted to improve and win the more effort I put in on the court. If you have read, researched, or are into fitness and exercise you're probably familiar with the term interval training and know how beneficial this type of exercise can be with short exposure/high intensity delivering superior fitness results than most other traditional forms of activity.
Tennis is an "interval training" sport/activity in its purest form. Playing tennis combines general endurance exercise with periods of explosive power resulting in an activity that raises the athletes/player's heart rate significantly for a short time then allows them to recover briefly. All the while, the player never stops the activity and just like conventional running interval training, where short sprints are followed by a recovery period of jogging or walking, playing tennis does exactly the same thing. However, unlike running, tennis is arguably more fun to do and because the player has more to distract them during their session the unpleasantness of fatigue through training is less – consciously anyway. Therefore, a session of tennis, as opposed to a similar session of running, is potentially better for those training to get or stay fit for recreational/lifestyle reasons as it will not only improve fitness it will also keep them engaged longer and thus more motivated overall.
Sure, I'm not saying going for a jog is bad… and yes you can listen to music, a podcast, or look at the scenery along the way to enhance the run but from experience playing a game like tennis against an opponent does a surprisingly good job at taking one's mind off the "exercising" part. Although, a steady jog is not really an equivalent to tennis to be fair and interval training is not really conducive to music listening or scenic viewing for argument's sake but you get the point.
I guess you could say, wouldn't the level of intensity be reliant on the player's ability in tennis? And you are correct to a degree, however, it still is relative because even if you are a tennis beginner you still have to run around the court getting into position to hit the ball. The only caveat to that is the hypothetical situation when a good tennis player is competing against a beginner and in this case, the beginner will obviously get a better run around. That's really overthinking it though because, in reality, most people will usually play tennis against someone who is at a similar playing level.
I've seen thousands of games of tennis in my time and one thing I can say for sure is no matter what level the game is played the intensity is still high. At my tennis centre, we have three levels of competition with level one being the best player group in the club and every season members are graded according to their skill via last season's results and placed into the appropriate level. I've often seen epic matches between level three players fighting it out on the court and leaving nothing in the tank – huffing and puffing – hands on hips – wet hair and shirts from perspiration at the sheer effort involved in playing tennis.
Personally, I'm almost always shattered physically (in a good way) at the end of 3 sets on Monday night fixtures and I consider my tennis "exercise" to be as hard or harder than most other training sessions I've participated in throughout my life including PT in the Army. You do get out what you put in and I concede an hour of singles at 1st-grade level is more intense than an hour of doubles in 3rd grade but often the skill level coincides with the general fitness level (with some exceptions) so again I say it's relative.
The actual mechanics of tennis exercise is what I believe makes it a full body workout because it's not just the running that elevates the heart rate it's what muscles are used and how they are challenged. Firstly, tennis demands lots of bending at the knees in order to get to the ball and get into position to hit it. This constant bending or squatting is incredibly effective at building the muscles in the thighs and bum – you don't see many serious tennis players who don't have a good solid backside and that's the reason for it.
When I first joined the military I found my leg strength attributed to years of regular tennis was an advantage in many of the tasks I needed to perform. Fireman's carry, getting over obstacles, pack marching, and general soldiering were activities that I found easier than most and I truly believe tennis got me off to a good start in what was a successful military career.
Lower body is obviously not the only muscles used in tennis and for some, it's the upper body like the shoulders, arms, and back muscles that are challenged the most! And it's not just the swinging racquet arm that gets the workout either as the opposite arm is utilised as well during play to balance the body and throw the ball up during serving. The mid-section of the body is used constantly throughout the game with the abs and obliques crucial to shot making and turning. See, tennis really is a full body workout and you wonder why they groan and grunt so much… well, now you know.
If you are worried that tennis is too difficult to learn let me assure you that whatever your age, tennis is an easy sport to pick up. It usually takes playing tennis just a few times to start getting the hang of it and you will become quite competent in no time at all. Also, most clubs offer coaching lessons which can get you off to a really good start if you have never held a tennis racquet before and even just a few organised tennis coaching sessions can be a big benefit. At my home club Caboolture Tennis Centre, I know some guys competing in first grade still get the odd coaching session to refine their game and get a few extra playing tips by Brad (our Club Coach) so I wouldn't say tennis coaching lessons are just for beginners.
From my experience, the reason many people trying to get fit and/or lose weight often fail is because they find working out too boring and unrealistic. For everyone, but particularly those people who don't like "exercise," playing a game of tennis can be a perfect way to get fit and stay healthy. Not only is tennis a fun sport to play but you hardly consider the amazing exercise value it gives because you are concentrating on other things during the game. I haven't even mentioned the social aspects of belonging to a tennis club in this article but I guess you can imagine these advantages as well!
Those who are right into their health and fitness understand endurance mixed with power is what sports scientists are always touting as the best exercises to do for complete fitness and best results. Tennis combines interval training, with endurance, and also weight training and coordination all in one session! You really can't get a better whole body workout that's also fun and relatively inexpensive to participate in than tennis.
So what are you waiting for? Contact your local tennis club today, pick up a tennis racquet and get into playing tennis because it's one of the best and most fun types of exercise you'll ever do.