VOllying a ping-pong ball back and forth may not seem like a game. After all, it usually doesn’t require any real athletic skill, aside from the occasional lunge after a rogue hit. But when you look at the mechanics of the action, there’s more than meets the eye (or hand). As you step around, maneuver your next shot and reach to hit the ball, a whole bunch of systems in the brain and body fire up, making regular table tennis sessions a secret boon for longevity.
If anyone should know this link, it’s family practice physician Danin Fruese, MD, medical director of Pritikin Longevity Center (where she often directs visitors to the on-site table tennis) and a former NCAA Division I tennis player. “I got my first experience with tennis and longevity when I taught people at a country club who were in their 90s,” she says. “And I noticed two things: There was something about practicing playing with a racket that seemed to keep these guys young, and they always had fun while playing.”
Research backs him up: Racket sports (such as tennis, badminton and squash) have proven to be one of the top categories of sports for extending lifespan. But not everyone has access to the court—or the knees or strength to run back on one, Dr. Froze warns. This sparked his interest in table tennis, which involves many of the same motions and thought processes as tennis (and then some, it can be faster), but requires no training or specific level of fitness to start playing. You can even play it on practically any table with a retractable ping-pong net.
The barrier to entry is further reduced when you consider that table tennis is generally considered a leisure activity or sport and no as exercise. “People are really surprised when we share with them that table tennis can support their longevity, because they think, ‘How can something so fun be so healthy?'” Interestingly, that enjoyment is actually Part of the benefits of activity. “There’s a level of strategy and intrigue with table tennis that you don’t get with just walking on a treadmill,” she says. This makes you less likely to get bored, and more likely to actually want to do it – helping you stick to a healthy (and fun) habit.
“[Table tennis] It involves doing multiple actions at the same time, quickly and in quick succession.” — Danin Fruese, MD, medical director of Pritikin Longevity Center
Like regular tennis, table tennis is also a brain- and body-supporting game. “It involves doing multiple actions quickly and in succession,” says Dr. Fruge. “For example, moving your feet is activating one part of the brain, flicking your wrists is another; judging the distance of a ball coming at you is another. And all those exercises simultaneously integrate different brain circuits, which we know are tied to longevity.”
Below, Dr. Fruese breaks down all the mental and physical effects of table tennis that make it worthy of a place in your longevity-enhancing arsenal.
Here are 3 ways that playing table tennis can increase your longevity, according to science
1. It works your brain
Scientists have known since the early 90s that table tennis is associated with greater mental capacity, even in old age, and that playing table tennis regularly may be able to help preserve your mental capacity. In comparing table tennis with other forms of exercise such as dancing, walking and resistance training, a 2014 study of 164 women found that it had a stronger effect on cognitive function. This mental benefit is likely due to sports using multiple brain regions at once, as Dr. Frooz described above.
Take the prefrontal cortex—the strategy and thinking part of the brain—which is involved in memory retention and recall, says Dr. Fruese. In table tennis, you’re tapping into this part of the brain every time you plan your next swipe or anticipate your opponent’s move, even if your execution doesn’t go as planned…great as you planned. “It doesn’t matter where the ball goes as much as you had it the thought It’s about where you wanted it to go,” says Dr. Fruese. “The key to how the brain works.”
“By activating the prefrontal cortex with table tennis, you can actually enhance memory retention and cognition.” -Dr. Frooz
The more you focus on fielding your partner’s hits throughout the game, the more you’re “flexing” that prefrontal cortex, which can become as strong as a muscle over time. “There’s evidence of something called neuroplasticity, where the brain actually gets used to and gets better at something you do repeatedly,” says Dr. Fruese. “By activating the prefrontal cortex with table tennis, you can actually enhance memory retention and cognition.” (This is why there are now table tennis programs developed specifically for people with Parkinson’s and dementia, such as the PingPongParkinson and Sport and Art Educational Foundation.)
That’s still not all the brain activity involved in a ping-pong game. During play, your brain is firing large and fine motor skills (aka moving your limbs and hands) as well as your visual and auditory systems, says Dr. Fruese. Hearing the ball click on the racket and table activates the part of your brain that processes sound, while watching the ball fly toward and away from you challenges your depth perception. Using all of these sensory inputs at once to hit the ball (aka hand-eye coordination) requires these different brain processes to occur in sync..
At the same time, your brain can engage in non-direct communication. “You don’t really have to look at anybody or pay attention to what they’re saying during the match, but you probably hear them say, ‘Good shot’ or ‘You miss!’ That allows for socialization and connection,” says Dr. Fruge. The more you laugh and enjoy the back and forth, the more you’re supporting your brain’s health and longevity, she says.
2. It improves your agility
Dr. Froze says that table tennis makes the most of fast-twitch muscle fibers—the fibers in your muscles that deliver a lot of power in short bursts—in a way that walking or lifting weights doesn’t. Why? When playing the game, you only have a few seconds to react and move your body towards the oncoming ball. Every time you lunge to one side or throw an arm to hit a high ball, you are engaging these fast-reacting fibers.
Once you practice these movements enough times and strengthen the fast-twitch fibers along the way, there’s a high chance you’ll avoid bad slips and falls, further protecting your longevity. (Falls are the leading cause of injury-related death in people age 65 and older.) “Anytime you’re on an uneven surface, if you have strong fast-twitch muscles, you’ll automatically navigate the bumps and jolts more effectively,” says Dr. Fruese. “The same goes for stepping over a curb or threshold or catching yourself if you make a mistake. The more responsive your fast-twitch muscles are, the less likely you are to fall.”
3. You’ll get your heart rate up
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 only because it involves all the juicy brain coordination mentioned above, but also because it gets your blood pumping. And any time you’re raising your heart rate through physical activity, you’re also increasing your longevity.
“You might be surprised at how quickly you can break a sweat just by playing table tennis,” says Dr. Fruge. And that’s largely the result of those fast-twitch muscles, again, delivering short, repeated bursts of energy whenever you reach to hit the ball.
“After building up to about 15 minutes of these quick activities, the game becomes a lot like high-intensity interval training—even if you don’t realize it,” says Dr. Fruese. And that has its own upside: “Although you can take breaks, you’ll usually play longer than you would exercise, since chances are, you won’t feel that nagging, nagging feeling of ‘Am I almost done?’ With a game of ping pong.”
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