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Mental Health

Pickleball as Depression Cure? It Worked for One Woman

Maybe it could help you, too.


For decades, Mary Jo Cline lived in a fog of despair — and talk therapy and prescription meds did little to help. Then one day, she stumbled upon people playing pickleball. When she gave the game a try, her whole life changed.

Mary Jo’s Struggles With Mental Health

“You need to come home,” Mary Jo Cline choked, calling her husband at work. Mary Jo had suffered from depression on and off for years, but after giving birth to her second child in 1995, it worsened. This day, she just couldn’t stop crying.

Realizing she needed help, Mary Jo checked into an 8-week outpatient program and started taking prescription antidepressants. But despite the program and ongoing therapy, Mary Jo continued to suffer through years of sadness, anxiety, and worry about her self-worth. Her depression became even more intense as she lost loved ones and fought two battles with cancer.

At times, Mary Jo was impatient and even hostile, and her brain fog made it hard to get through a normal day. She became socially withdrawn, and when her daughters got older, she would take them to school, go back to bed and count the hours until the day would end.

Mary Jo’s Pickleball Prescription

Doctors encouraged her to get out and exercise, but Mary Jo wasn’t naturally athletic. Also, she suffered from neuropathy and needed medication for chronic nerve pain. No matter what type of exercise she tried, she never could stick with it for very long.

Then, one day in 2015, Mary Jo happened to witness a pickleball game, and it piqued her interest. She recognized her daughters’ high school tennis coach on the court and asked her about the game.

Pickleball, Mary Jo learned, combines elements of tennis, badminton, and Ping-Pong, and is played both indoors and outdoors. Opponents hit a hollow, hard, perforated plastic ball back and forth over a net with a graphite or carbon fiber paddle. Best of all, it’s low-impact and easy to learn. I think this is a game I could get into, Mary Jo hoped.

Soon after, Mary Jo showed up to a game and was quickly hooked. She not only had fun, but also got a good workout that didn’t worsen her pain. In fact, she walked off the court feeling mentally and emotionally better than she had in years.

And for good reason: A recent study from Frontiers in Psychology shows that playing pickleball can lessen depression and stress, as well as boost satisfaction in life and overall mental health. That’s because gentle exercise causes an increase in brain neurotransmitters, including serotonin and dopamine, which can lead to feelings of well-being and positive mental health.

How Pickleball Improved Her Mental Health

Soon, Mary Jo began playing pickleball three times a week, from two to three hours each time. To her surprise and delight, she immediately felt her mental state improve. It’s amazing, she thought. I feel less brain fog, and I am so much happier in general!

Mary Jo also realized how much she enjoyed the healthy competition and being a part of such a supportive, positive community, which worked wonders to help improve her self-esteem. She even made a few good friends on the courts and has kept in touch with other competitors she’s met at local pickleball festivals.

Today, Mary Jo is thrilled by all the ways the game has changed her life. “At 59, I feel the best I’ve ever felt mentally, physically, and emotionally,” says Mary Jo, who no longer takes medication for depression. “I really do credit pickleball for that!”

3 More Easy Happiness Boosters Backed by Science

Feel like you could benefit from a pick-me-up? If you don’t have a pickleball court near you, don’t worry. Check out these three other research-backed methods that might help bring sunshine into your life.

This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.

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A version of this article originally appeared in our print magazine, Woman’s World.

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