Tennis for Health and Wellness: From Beginner to Competitive Athlete

Aug. 13, 2021

‘Tis the season for tennis, and with that, a renewed interest in this popular sport. Tennis can have health benefits for everyone, even if you aren’t a pro athlete.

Tennis For Health and Wellness

Cincinnati loves its tennis. The present-day Western & Southern Open dates to 1899, making it the nation’s oldest tennis tournament still held played in its original city.

The tournament always dazzles, bringing the world’s top players to the Lindner Family Tennis Center in the city of Mason, Ohio, for fast-paced action on the hardcourt. UC Health is proud to serve as the Western & Southern Open's official medical services, healthcare and sports medicine provider for the athletes and fans.

Many fans already know that learning how to play competitive tennis offers plenty of health benefits, no matter your skill level. If you’ve been on the fence about taking up the racquet yourself, we’ve got plenty of reasons that might convince you to step onto the court.

“Tennis is great aerobic exercise with a social component where you can play with friends and meet new people,” says Michael Donaworth, MD, UC Health primary care sports medicine physician and assistant professor in the Department of Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine. Dr. Donaworth also serves as the co-medical director of the Western & Southern Open. 

“It’s a lifelong sport that you can play at any age and find a competitor of similar age and skill level,” Dr. Donaworth says. “Tennis is a worldwide sport, so no matter where you are, you can likely find someone who plays.”

As good as tennis is for your health, it can also be easy on your wallet. Many local parks, apartment complexes and housing developments feature free, well-maintained courts. For solo practice, all you need is a wall and a surface you can safely bounce from.

And while professional-grade tennis racquets can be very expensive, there are plenty of lower-cost options perfect for beginners. The United States Tennis Association (USTA) says a 27-inch racquet will meet the needs of most adult players regardless of skill level. You might find some bargains at local sports equipment reuse stores or a yard sale.

Guide to Playing Tennis for Health and Wellness

Your Quick-Start Guide to Playing Tennis

Tennis at its most basic level is two players hitting a ball back-and-forth until one of the players sends the ball out of bounds or into the net. As friendly beginners, you can play this way to your heart’s content and award points like you would in volleyball or a similar game.

There is a lot of finesse to tennis, so don’t be tempted to go out and hit the ball as hard as you can. You’ll probably send the ball flying out of control. Worse, you could be setting yourself up for injury.

“The name of the game is to start low and go slow,” advises Brian Grawe, MD, UC Health orthopaedic surgeon and associate professor in the Department of Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine at the UC College of Medicine. Dr. Grawe also serves as the co-medical director of the Western & Southern Open.

“I usually recommend taking time to volley with a partner and building stamina over a multi-week period,” Dr. Grawe tells novice tennis players. “I highly recommend starting with doubles play. This will require less court coverage to get to the next shot.”

As you gain confidence with your serve and develop more accuracy with your backhand and forehand, you can start incorporating the official rules into your regular play. The USTA has a wealth of online resources to get you familiar with everything from the basics of a tennis match to scoring a game.

How Tennis Can Improve Your Health

Tennis is a fun way to add more physical activity into your routine. It checks a lot of boxes for improving your long-term health and wellness.

“Tennis is a great form of cardiovascular exercise,” Dr. Donaworth says. “Aerobic exercises can help lower your resting heart rate and blood pressure, improve your metabolic function and improve muscle tone, strength and flexibility.”

You’ll get the most health benefits from at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity play each week or at least 75 minutes of vigorous intensity activity. You do not have to get those minutes in all at once. “Preferably, aerobic activity should be spread throughout the week,” Dr. Donaworth says.

Because tennis provides moderate to vigorous exercise, you should check with your doctor before playing. This is especially true if you don’t normally exercise or if you have underlying health conditions like heart disease, kidney disease or diabetes. Once you’re cleared to play, you can start enjoying the many benefits of tennis.

Playing singles or doubles tennis a few times a week can help you meet the American Heart Association's exercise recommendations for better heart health. [MB1] Studies have shown that tennis players maintain lower percentages of body fat than nonplayers, even among recreational players who only visit the court twice a week.

One of the advantages of playing tennis for exercise is that it gives you a full-body workout. Your legs are engaged running and jumping for the ball. Your arms and shoulders become better developed swinging the racquet. Your abs and core are in constant use keeping your body flexing and stabilized.

“The No. 1 thing a tennis player can do to keep their game where they want it to be is keep their core strong,” Dr. Grawe says. “Power generated through the tennis stroke primarily occurs through the core, not the shoulder or wrist.”

Increasing your physical activity through aerobic exercise like tennis strengthens your heart muscle and improves its ability to pump blood to your lungs and the rest of your body. It can also decrease your risk for heart disease by lowering your blood pressure and improving your cholesterol levels.

Tennis has been shown to improve bone density, even among those who take up the sport mid-adulthood. Adults tend to start losing bone mass in their 40s. Weight-bearing exercises like tennis can strengthen your bones, which can help to prevent falls and fractures.

Getting Ready for Match Play

You can get more out of your tennis matches by making some improvements off the court.

Give yourself a good warm-up to prepare your body for the high-energy, explosive movements that make tennis such a valuable exercise. Some light jogging, dynamic stretches and gentle volleys will give your heart rate a boost and loosen you up for your match.

Cooling down after your game is equally valuable.

“The importance of stretching after competition cannot be overstated,” Dr. Grawe says. “Most amateur tennis players are aware of the benefits of warming up but will consistently neglect the advantages of taking time to cool down.”

Once your game is over, brisk walking or light jogging can ease you back down to your resting heart rate. Static stretches that you hold for 20-30 seconds can reduce muscle soreness later, especially in muscles that you worked heavily and are starting to feel tight.

“Keeping the shoulder limber with a sleeper stretch before and after tennis activities can do wonders for an amateur player’s game,” Dr. Grawe says.

You will burn more calories the harder you play tennis. Good nutrition and a well-balanced diet will give your body the energy it needs for better performance on the court.

  • Carbohydrates are the main source of energy that will fuel your game. They should be part of your meals before and after training. Good sources of carbohydrates include fruits, whole grains and beans.
  • Proteins will support muscle growth and recovery. Lean meats, eggs, low-fat dairy and tofu are all good sources.
  • Healthy fats will provide an additional energy source for your game, but they will also help you absorb vitamins from other foods. Look for unsaturated fats that mostly come from plant sources, like olive oil, seeds, nuts and avocado.

Proper hydration is essential for tennis, especially when the temperature climbs. Drink plenty of water before, during, and after your game to replace the fluids you lose while you sweat.

Sports drinks like Gatorade during your game can also replace lost electrolytes in your sweat. Sports drinks containing sugar can give you an energy boost by providing some easily absorbed carbohydrates.

Common Tennis Injuries and How to Avoid Them

Injuries can happen in any sport. Tennis is no exception, but you can take steps to avoid a world of hurt.

Strength training and conditioning will give you more power and stamina for your game. You will get the added benefit of preventing on-the-court injuries by having more flexibility and range of motion in your joints and tendons.

“Injury from repetitive overuse is the No. 1 type of tennis injury that we see at UC Health Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine,” Dr. Grawe says. “Protection and prevention are the first lines of treatment.”

Tennis elbow is so named because of its close association with the sport. It’s a form of tendinitis: swelling and pain in the tendons of the outer elbow. Tennis elbow is generally a result of repetitive wrist turning or gripping the racquet.

Rest, ice and over-the-counter pain medicine are usually enough to provide relief for mild cases. Changes to technique and equipment can provide more long-term solutions.

“If pesky elbow pain is affecting your stroke, we will often have our athletes switch to a more forgiving racquet and adjust their grip style,” Dr. Grawe says.

Tennis also requires a lot of shoulder movement, especially when you are serving. That makes the shoulder another potential spot for tendinitis or tears in the rotator cuff.

“Keeping the rotator cuff as well as the scapula (shoulder bone) strong can be helpful,” Dr. Grawe advises for preventing injury. “That involves a muscle called the serratus anterior.”

The serratus anterior is a fan-shaped muscle that runs from the side of your rib cage up to your shoulder blade. It helps you move your shoulder blade forward and up. You can strengthen it with simple body-weight exercises like push-ups, planks and chin-ups.

“Repetitive overuse injuries require significantly more healing time and are much more difficult to deal with in comparison to the lower extremity injuries which are usually acute in nature, like ankle sprains and tendon strains,” Dr. Grawe says.

Choosing a good pair of tennis shoes with plenty of ankle support can help you avoid some of the more common tennis injuries associated with all the running in tennis.

As Cincinnati’s leading experts in diagnosing and treating musculoskeletal conditions, the physicians of UC Health Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine have the expertise to care for tennis injuries no matter if you are an elite athlete or budding amateur.

To learn more, call 513-475-8690 to schedule an appointment.