Vplaying ping-pong back and forth may not seem like much of a game. After all, you usually don’t need any athletic prowess, except for the occasional jump after a bad hit. But when you get into the mechanics of the activity, there’s a lot more than meets the eye (or hand). As you step from one side to the other, strategize your next move, and reach for the ball, a whole bunch of systems fire up in the brain and body, making regular table tennis sessions a secret benefit for longevity.
If anyone should know the link firsthand, it’s family practice physician Danine Fruge, MD, medical director at the Pritikin Longevity Center (where she often directs visitors to on-site table tennis) and a former player of NCAA Division I tennis. “I got my first experience of tennis and longevity when I coached people at a country club who were 90 years old,” he says. “And I noticed two things: There was something about playing racquetball that seemed to keep these guys young, and they were always having fun playing.”
Research backs him up: Racket sports (such as tennis, badminton, and squash) have been proven to be one of the top sports categories for extending life expectancy. But not everyone can reach the court-or the knees or the strength to run back and forth for one, warns Dr. Fruge. That sparked his interest in table tennis, which involves as many movements and thought processes as tennis (and then some, given that it can be faster), but doesn’t require training or a certain level of fitness to start playing. And you can even play it on 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 recreational activity or sport, and it is not as an exercise. “It really surprises people when we share with them that table tennis can support their longevity,” says Dr. Fruge, “because they think, ‘How can we have something so fun to be healthy?'” Interestingly, that fun is part of life. the benefits of the activity. “There’s a level of strategy and intrigue with table tennis that you don’t get just walking through a treadmill,” he says. That makes you less likely to get bored, and more likely to want to do it—helping you stick to good (and fun) habits.
“[Table tennis] it involves doing many things at once, quickly and consistently.” -Danine Fruge, MD, medical director at the Pritikin Longevity Center
Like regular tennis, table tennis is also a sport that supports the brain and body. “It involves doing many actions at the same time, quickly and continuously,” says Dr. Fruge. “For example, moving your foot activates one part of the brain, moving your arm is another thing; judging how far the ball is coming at you is another matter. And doing all those habits connect several brain circuits at once, which we know is associated with longevity.
Below, Dr. Fruge breaks down all of the mental and physical side effects of table tennis that make the classic time lapse worthy of a place in your life-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 ability, even in old age, and playing table tennis regularly can help preserve your mental ability. Comparing table tennis to other forms of exercise such as dancing, walking, and resistance training, a 2014 study of 164 women also found that it had a greater effect on cognitive performance. That mental advantage may be due to the game using many parts of the brain at once, as Dr. Fruge explained above.
Take the frontal cortex—the strategic and thinking part of the brain—which is involved in storing and remembering, says Dr. Fruge. In a game of table tennis, you hit 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 good as you planned. “Where the ball goes doesn’t matter as much as you had it thoughts about where you wanted it to go,” says Dr. Fruge. “That’s the key to how the brain works.”
“By activating the frontal cortex with table tennis, you can improve memory and cognition.” -Dr. Fruge
The more you focus on keeping your partner’s hits throughout the game, the more you “flex” the frontal cortex, which can strengthen over time like a muscle. “There is evidence of something called neuroplasticity, where the brain adapts and gets better at whatever you do repeatedly,” says Dr. Fruge. “By activating the frontal cortex with table tennis, then, you can improve memory and cognition.” (That’s why there are now table tennis programs designed specifically for people with Parkinson’s disease and dementia, such as PingPongParkinson and the Sport & Art Educational Foundation.)
That’s not all the brain activity involved in a ping-pong game. When you play, your brain also develops gross and fine motor skills (known as moving your limbs and hands), as well as your visual and auditory systems, says Dr. Fruge. Hearing the ball click on the racket and table activates the part of your brain that processes sound, while watching the ball fly towards 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 various brain processes to occur in sync..
At the same time, your brain can also participate in indirect communication. “You don’t have to look at someone or pay attention to what they’re saying during a match, but you’re likely to hear them say, ‘Nice shot,’ or ‘You missed!’ which allows socialization and relationship,” says Dr. Fruge. The more you laugh and enjoy the back and forth, the more you’re helping your brain health and longevity, too, he says.
2. It improves your agility
Dr. Fruge says table tennis uses fast-twitch muscle fibers—the fibers in your muscles that produce a lot of force in short bursts—in a way that walking or lifting weights doesn’t. Why? During the game, you only have a few seconds to react and move your body towards the incoming ball. Every time you lean to one side or throw an arm to hit a high ball, you put these fast-reacting fibers to work.
Once you practice those movements enough times and strengthen those fast-moving fibers along the way, you’ll be more likely to avoid bad slips and falls, further protecting your longevity. (Falls are the leading cause of injury-related death among people age 65 and older.) “Anytime you’re on an uneven surface, if you have fast-twitch muscles, you’re going to automatically push and pull more efficiently. ,” he says. Dr. Fruge. “The same goes for going over a ledge or over a threshold, or catching yourself if you make a mistake. The faster your lax muscles respond, the less likely you are to fall.”
3. You will get your heart rate going
Sure, it’s not a five-mile run, but that doesn’t mean table tennis can’t be an aerobic activity. In fact, a study conducted by the Mayo Clinic in 2012 found that ping pong can help brain health not only because it involves all the brain juice coordination mentioned above, but also because it gets your blood pumping. And any time you raise your heart rate with physical activity, you also increase your longevity.
“You might be surprised how quickly you can sweat during a game of table tennis,” says Dr. Fruge. And that’s the result of those fast-moving muscles, once again, producing short, frequent bursts of power every time you reach to hit the ball.
“After about 15 minutes of doing those quick activities, the game becomes like high-intensity exercise—even if you don’t realize it,” says Dr. Fruge. And that has its own advantages: “Even though you can take a break, you’re more likely to play for longer than you would with regular practice, because chances are, you won’t get that tired, nagging feeling of ‘Are you done yet?’ and a game of ping pong.”
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