Volleying a ping-pong ball back and forth may not seem like much of a sport. After all, it usually doesn’t require any real athletic prowess, excepting the occasional lunge after a rogue hit. But when you delve into the mechanics of the activity, there’s far more than meets the eye (or hand). As you step from side to side, strategize your next shot, and reach to hit the ball, a whole bunch of systems fire in the brain and body, making regular table tennis sessions a secret boon for longevity.
If anyone should know that link first-hand, it’s family-practice physician Danine Fruge, MD, medical director at Pritikin Longevity Center (where she often points visitors to on-site table tennis) and a former NCAA Division I tennis player. “I had my first experience with tennis and longevity when I taught people at a country club who were in their 90’s,” she says. “And I noticed two things: There was something about practicing a racket sport that seemed to keep these people young, and they were always having fun while they played.”
Research backs her up: Racket sports (like tennis, badminton, and squash) have been proven to be one of the top categories of sport for increasing lifespan. But not everyone has access to a court–or the knees or energy to run back and forth on one, Dr. Fruge caveats. That sparked her interest in table tennis, which involves many of the same motions and thought processes as tennis (and then some, given it can be even faster-paced), but requires no training or particular level of fitness to start playing. And you can even play it on practically any table with a retractable ping-pong net.
The barrier to entry drops even further when you consider that table tennis is generally thought of as a leisure activity or game, and not as exercise. “It’s really a surprise to people when we share with them that table tennis can support their longevity,” says Dr. Fruge, “because they think, ‘How could something so fun be so healthy?'” Interestingly, that enjoyment is actually part of the activity’s benefits. “There’s a level of strategy and intrigue with table tennis that you just don’t get with walking on a treadmill,” she says. That makes you less likely to get bored, and more likely to actually want to do it–helping you stick with a healthy (and fun) habit.
“[Table tennis] involves doing multiple actions at the same time, quickly and in succession.” –Danine Fruge, MD, medical director at Pritikin Longevity Center
Like regular tennis, table tennis is also a brain- and body-supportive game. “It involves doing multiple actions at the same time, quickly and in succession,” says Dr. Fruge. “For example, moving your leg is activating one part of the brain, flicking your wrist is another; judging the distance of the ball coming toward you is yet another. And doing all of that practices integrating several different brain circuits at once, which we know is tied to longevity.”
Below, Dr. Fruge breaks down all the mental and physical effects of table tennis that make the humble pass-time worthy of a spot in your longevity-boosting arsenal.
1. It works out out your brain
Scientists have known since the early 90s that table tennis is linked with greater mental ability, even into old age, and playing table tennis regularly may be able to help preserve your mental capacities. In comparing table tennis to other forms of exercise like dancing, walking, and resistance training, a 2014 study of 164 women also found that it had a stronger effect on cognitive function. That mental benefit is likely due to the sport’s use of multiple brain regions at once, as Dr. Fruge described above.
Take the prefrontal cortex–the strategy and thinking part of the brain–which is involved in memory retention and recall, says Dr. Fruge. In a game of table tennis, you’re tapping this area of the brain every time you plan your next swipe or anticipate your opponent’s move, even if your execution isn’t as…great as you planned. “Where the ball goes doesn’t matter as much as the fact that you had the thought about where you wanted it to go,” says Dr. Fruge. “That’s key to how the brain works.”
“By activating the prefrontal cortex with table tennis, you may actually boost memory retention and cognition.” –Dr. Fruge
The more you focus on fielding your partner’s hits throughout the game, the more you’re “flexing” that prefrontal cortex, which can strengthen with time kind of like a muscle. “There is evidence of something called neuroplasticity, where the brain actually gets used to and gets good at whatever you repeatedly do,” says Dr. Fruge. “By activating the prefrontal cortex with table tennis, then, you may actually boost memory retention and cognition.” (That’s why there are now table tennis programs made specifically for people with Parkinson’s and dementia, like PingPongParkinson and Sport & Art Educational Foundation.)
That’s still not all the brain activity involved in a ping-pong game. While playing, your brain is also firing up large and fine motor skills (aka moving your extremities and hand), as well as your visual and hearing systems, says Dr. Fruge. Hearing the ball click on the rackets and table activates the part of your brain that processes sound, while watching the ball fly toward and away from you is challenging your depth perception. Utilizing all these sensory inputs at once in order to hit the ball (aka hand-eye coordination) requires these various brain processes to happen in sync.
At the same time, your brain may also be engaging in non-direct communication. “You don’t actually have to be looking at someone or concentrating on what they’re saying during a match, but you’re likely hearing them say, ‘Good shot,’ or ‘You miss!’ which is allowing for socialization and connection,” says Dr. Fruge. The more you’re laughing and enjoying the back-and-forth, the more you’re supporting your brain health and longevity, too, she says.
2. It improves your agility
Dr. Fruge says table tennis makes major use of fast-twitch muscle fibers–fibers in your muscle that provide lots of force for short bursts–in a way that walking or lifting weights does not. Why? During game play, you only have a few seconds to react and move your body in the direction of an on-coming ball. Every time you’re lunging to one side or throwing an arm to hit a high ball, you’re putting these quick-responding fibers to work.
Once you’ve practiced those movements enough times and strengthened those fast-twitch fibers along the way, there’s a higher likelihood that you’ll avoid bad slips and falls, further safeguarding your longevity. (Falls are the leading cause of injury-related death among people 65 and older.) “Anytime you’re on an uneven surface, if you have strong fast-twitch muscles, you’ll automatically navigate pushes and shoves more effectively,” says Dr. Fruge. “The same goes for stepping over a curb or over a threshold, or catching yourself if you misstep. The more responsive your fast-twitch muscles, the less likely you are to fall.”
3. You’ll get your heart rate going
Sure, it’s not exactly a five-mile run, but that doesn’t mean table tennis can’t be an aerobic activity. In fact, research conducted by the Mayo Clinic in 2012 found that ping pong can support brain health not just because it involves all that juicy brain coordination noted above, but also because it gets your blood pumping. And any time you’re elevating your heart rate with physical movement, you’re also boosting your longevity.
“You may be surprised by how quickly you can build up a sweat with a game of table tennis,” says Dr. Fruge. And that’s largely a result of those fast-twitch muscles, once again, delivering short, repeated bursts of power each time you reach to smack the ball.
“After about 15 minutes of generating these quick bursts of activity, the game becomes much like high-intensity interval training–even if you don’t realize it,” says Dr. Fruge. And that has its own upsides: “Though you might take breaks, you’re more likely to play for even longer than you’d normally exercise, since chances are, you won’t experience that bored, suffering feeling of ‘Am I almost done yet?’ with a game of ping pong.”
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