Fitness Basics: Learning to Love Tennis

Yes, it can help you get fit. But the benefits of tennis go beyond the physical, experts say.

By Barbara Russi Sarnataro
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD

Can a slice backhand, topspin forehand, or overhead smash help you lose those love handles? Experts say tennis can do that and much more - it's a way to learn a new skill, build strength and flexibility, stimulate your mind, and gain a new social outlet.

And you don't have to be Rafael Nadal -- the Spanish player whose skills and bulging biceps are taking the tennis world by storm -- to realize the benefits of the sport.

"Tennis is for anyone and everyone," says Bob Helmig, a U.S. Professional Tennis Association (USTA) and U.S. Professional Tennis Registry (USPTR) pro from Tucson, Ariz.

Among tennis' physical benefits, he says, are improved strength, flexibility, and fitness.

The fitness benefits are felt during long rallies with a partner and short, intense bursts of activity while you're chasing a ball. The strength and flexibility come because you're using large muscle groups to run, stand ready, serve, and return balls.

Tennis is a sport where you're twisting, lunging and reaching all the time. And this helps improve balance and stability as well as strength and flexibility.

"There's great lateral movement because you're always changing direction, unlike running, which is very linear," says Helmig, who teaches at the Tucson Racquet and Fitness Club.

And tennis will do more than help get you physically fit, he says.

"It's mental and emotional," he says. "A player really learns to be focused, which transcends into other areas of life."

On the court, you learn to think several steps ahead, adapt quickly to changes, anticipate your opponent, and implement winning strategies - valuable skills in most any profession. You can also learn to be a humble winner and a gracious loser, the USTA says. And you'll improve your reaction time and your hand-eye coordination.

Furthermore, hitting the ball can be a great de-stressor, says Shannon Smith, USPTA tennis pro in Fort Bragg, Calif.

And there are the social aspects of tennis, which can also be a huge fitness benefit, says Smith.

Because you need at least one partner to play, "tennis can keep people active by making a commitment to another person," she says.

The Learning Curve

As with most new exercise ventures, you won't realize all these benefits right away. There's a learning curve for tennis, especially if you're a brand-new player.

"At first, beginners aren't going to have these long rallies (keeping the ball in play) that would make tennis more aerobic," says Smith.

So at least at first, don't expect to burn the same amount of calories during an hour-long lesson than you would during the same time on the treadmill, says Linda Sneed, USPTA pro and tennis coach at the Little Rock Athletic Club in Little Rock, Ark.

And during a lesson, sometimes you'll work on technique and form more than running cross-court, she says.

"It's like walking at first," says Sneed. "It gets you out and it's something fun and you're moving."

But if you stay consistent, it won't be long before you're able to get a good rally going, and in turn, burn more calories, Sneed says.

A great tip, Sneed says, is to play with someone who has skills comparable to yours: "Even at a lower level, if you're playing with someone that's competitive with you, you'll keep a lot of balls in play."

Cardio Tennis

You could also consider Cardio Tennis, a program offered in many cities that gives tennis players at any level the heart-pumping benefits once experienced mostly by competitive players. Helmig started this program at the Tucson Racquet and Fitness Club, one of the certified sites for Cardio Tennis.

Essentially, the program combines uses a series of cardiovascular drills to keep the heart rate in the "fat-burning zone" -- between 65% and 85% of a person's maximum heart rate. There are up to 15 people in a Cardio Tennis class, which is set to music.

Cardio Tennis drills last three minutes, says Helmig. For example, a player hits a volley, then rushes the net, tapping the racquet to the net, then backs up to hit an overhead. The pro coordinates the shots and choreographs all the drills.

"Even if you're a true beginner with little or no experience, you still get a lot out of it," Helmig says.

While Cardio Tennis may not do much to improve your tennis technique, he says, you can supplement it with private or semi-private lessons.

You Need More Than Love

If you're planning to take up tennis, you'll need a tennis racquet and a pair of court shoes (and a can of balls, of course). Don't try wearing your running shoes on the court, says Helmig. They don't work well with all the lateral movement, and you could end up with an injury.