Fitness Basics: Learning to Love Tennis (cont.)

"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.

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