January 23, 2024
A Prescription for Connection
U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy is among the most trusted voices in America on matters of public health. One of his main objectives is to tackle the alarming rate of loneliness in the United States. And pickleball can be part of the solution.
By Laura Gainor
In a society increasingly dominated by digital interactions, the United States is grappling with an unexpected crisis: loneliness. U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy is addressing this pervasive issue, calling for genuine face-to-face connections. It’s no surprise that pickleball—a highly social and welcoming sport—is one way of bringing people and communities together.
Today, there are nearly 50 million pickleball players, according to the 2023 APP Pickleball Participation Report. “Pickleball has tapped into something that we’ve known for a long time but need to be reminded of—meeting up in person, getting some exercise, and playing a sport, whether you’re a child or an adult—these are all part of what it means to be human. We need connection and time with others to thrive, just as we need food and water,” says Dr. Murthy.
“Pickleball has tapped into something that we’ve known for a long time but need to be reminded of—meeting up in person, getting some exercise, and playing a sport, whether you’re a child or an adult—these are all part of what it means to be human. We need connection and time with others to thrive, just as we need food and water.”
Far-Reaching Consequences of Loneliness
Dr. Murthy’s recent advisory, “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation” (https://surgeongeneral.gov/loneliness), has shed light on the profound impact of social disconnection and the potential remedies that lie within our grasp.
According to Dr. Murthy, one in two adults struggle with loneliness, with even higher rates among young people. “It’s really concerning to me as a father who looks at my two kids and thinks about the world in which they are growing up,” he says. “I want to make sure they are healthy, happy and fulfilled.”
Dr. Murthy explains that there are multifaceted consequences of prolonged loneliness. “It goes beyond being a mere feeling; it becomes a catalyst for myriad health issues,” he says. “People who struggle with social disconnection are at increased risk for depression, anxiety and suicide, as well as physical ailments, including a 29 percent increase in the risk of heart disease, 32 percent increase in risk of stroke, 50 percent increase in dementia in older people, and increased risk of premature death.”
The roots of the nation’s loneliness epidemic go back a half century, Dr. Murthy explains, with declining participation in the organizations and community forces that used to bring us together, including recreation leagues, service organizations and faith groups.
Technology, with all its advantages, has exacerbated the issue. Social media for many young people, he asserts, “has changed the nature and quality of their relationships, often in a negative way. They see people constantly doing things without them, and the quality of friendships has been replaced in importance by the quantity of friendships, even though that is not what ultimately drives our health and fulfillment.”
Pickleball: More Than Just a Game
Dr. Murthy was first introduced to pickleball while visiting his in-laws last year in California. He went to the YMCA where he frequently shoots hoops. That’s when he saw a lot of people playing pickleball—a sport he had heard about and was fascinated by. While watching the excitement, one of the players invited him to join them.
“I was so grateful for the opportunity,” he recalls. “I came to realize it’s a very social game. They taught me the rules, the lines and where you have to serve, and I loved it.”
The experience took him back to fond memories of his younger days when he actively pursued various racquet sports including tennis, badminton, and table tennis. “Despite their differences, tennis and pickleball are both a mix of power and finesse,” Dr. Murthy says. “As a tennis player, I’ve really enjoyed learning pickleball. Many of the skills are transferable, but there are plenty of new elements to learn that keep it exciting and fun.”
He also introduced the sport to his two children, ages 5 and 7. “They absolutely loved it,” he notes. “I’m excited for us to play more in 2024.”
Pickleball’s Impact on Mental Health
The connection between physical activity and mental health is well-established. Dr. Murthy points out that being physically active not only helps reduce the risk of chronic disease but also has a profound effect on mental health: “Pickleball and other sports boost your mood and have a powerful effect on how you feel. It’s time for us to recognize that social disconnection is a public health threat that’s as important as smoking and obesity, and one that we have to take seriously.”
The issue was exacerbated by the global pandemic, he adds, particularly for young people. The closure of schools and the inability to see family and friends all contributed to the problem. “Young people experienced that disruption at a very sensitive time in their social development,” he explains. “Many of them are still struggling to get back to the place where they are comfortable interacting with each other.”
The 5-for-5 Challenge: A Simple Solution
To address the complex issue of loneliness, Dr. Murthy has introduced a straightforward yet powerful initiative—the 5-for-5 Challenge, which encourages individuals to commit to connecting with others by taking one action a day for five days. This could include calling a family member, asking a friend for help or volunteering at a local event. Dr. Murthy believes that in as little as 60 seconds a day, individuals can foster meaningful connections in their lives.
“When people are feeling lonely, they may think they have to completely transform their lives in order to deal with loneliness, but the truth is it’s actually small steps that make a big difference in how connected we feel.”
The 5-for-5 Challenge maintains that online and offline connections are not equivalent. Dr. Murthy advocates for the power of in-person interactions, emphasizing that “face-to-face is a much more effective way of building connection than solely being online with someone.” •
Laura Gainor is a contributor to Pickleball Magazine and leads its social media outreach through her pickleball marketing agency, Vossberg Gainor. She is the founder of Pickleball in the Sun, a lifestyle brand and experiential agency. Her family lives in Ponte Vedra, Florida.