Q&A: The health benefits of tennis
Dr. Alexis Colvin is an orthopedic surgeon specializing in sports medicine and a professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. She has treated players at the US Open since 2009 and is the current Chief Medical Officer of the US Open, as well as the team physician for the U.S. Billie Jean King Cup team.
A member of the USTA's sport science committee, Colvin has also served as a physician at the United States Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo. and was recognized on the inaugural Crain’s “Notable Women in the Business of Sports” list.
A graduate of Princeton University and the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, Colvin completed her orthopedic surgery residency at New York University and her sports medicine fellowship at the internationally-renowned University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. She specializes in the treatment of knee, shoulder and hip disorders.
In the below Q&A, Colvin highlights the all-around health benefits of tennis as a sport for life.
As a sports medicine specialist, where do you see tennis fitting in as an athletic endeavor for someone who is seeking to live a healthy lifestyle?
There are several components to a healthy lifestyle (such as eating a nutritious diet, avoiding smoking, getting enough sleep) of which exercise is a critical part. Exercise has multiple health benefits ranging from decreasing the risk of various chronic diseases to improving mental health. Tennis, in particular, has some unique advantages. It is a sport that can be learned and played at any age—a true lifelong sport. In addition, the variety in how it can be played—as singles or doubles, recreational or competitive, indoors or outdoors—makes it appealing for all ages and abilities. It’s one of the few sports where there can be multiple generations of varying ability levels playing together. There really is something for everyone.
How do recreational tennis players benefit from playing the sport?
You absolutely do not need to be a professional tennis player to derive the health benefits of playing tennis. In fact, in order to objectively determine the effect of tennis on health, we conducted a study in 2018 of USTA League players, which is the largest competitive adult tennis program in the country. There were over 10,000 tennis players surveyed which makes it one of the largest sport specific studies to date, and certainly, the largest tennis specific study to date.* USTA League players are a very healthy population at baseline – only 1.4% of respondents were smokers (10X less than the general U.S. population) and the average BMI was in the normal range. We also found that the more days per week that tennis was played correlated with better scores on the health survey, as did those who played at an NTRP level of 4.0 or above.
Most importantly, regardless of the number of days per week that tennis was played and at what competitive level, USTA League athletes scored better than the general population across the board on all aspects of health, including physical, mental, social and emotional. While we often talk about the benefits of tennis, this was something that clearly demonstrated that tennis players derive health benefits at the recreational level.
Would you recommend tennis as an entry-level activity for those looking to improve their overall health and wellness?
Tennis is certainly one activity that can be learned at any age – whether you have never picked up a racquet or are just looking for a new hobby. Not only does tennis carry the benefits that come with cardiovascular activity, but there are also the added benefits of challenging different functions of the brain with the demands on hand-eye coordination and making split second decisions during play. Last, but certainly not least, tennis is also a great way to increase our social interactions.
Can playing tennis lead an individual to other healthy lifestyle choices and habits?
Tennis can certainly be the gateway to other healthy habits. Keeping safe and healthy on the tennis court includes choices such as appropriate sun protection, hydration, nutrition, pre-match preparation and post-match recovery. What I have witnessed in my own patients is that it is nearly inevitable that making positive choices in one aspect of your life carries over into other aspects of life.
With the increase in participation in tennis as a safe socially-distant sport that’s been recorded as an effect of the COVID-19 pandemic, where do you think it goes from here?
Given the many health benefits of tennis, coupled with the built-in distancing that comes with playing on the tennis court, it’s not surprising that tennis participation has grown exponentially! In my own personal practice, I have seen many patients who have either started playing tennis or increased playing time over the past year for just those reasons.
From a health perspective, I think it’s important to continue to educate the tennis playing populations (whether it’s at the novice or more experienced levels) on proper injury prevention and recovery techniques so everyone can keep playing tennis!
* Tishelman J, Bu D, Gladstone J, Colvin A. Improved general health outcomes in US recreational tennis players. Journal of Medicine and Science in Tennis, July 2020.