Contributed by Carol Pfeil
Whether you know the game as Whiff-Waff, Pim-Pam, Flim-Flam, Gossima, Netto, Parlor Tennis, Table Tennis, or Ping Pong – it’s all the same, at least in its English origins as a brilliant after dinner substitute activity for lawn tennis. Actually, rules were only created in 1926 after Europeans had played the game for 35 years. Imagine the English without a proper set of rules, but instead just relishing in a ‘jolly good time’. Books stacked high enough to function as a net, a cigar box top as a paddle, and the round part of a champagne cork as the ball were the original equipment. Thankfully, the game has evolved quite a bit since its origins.
Some may view Ping Pong as more of a ‘Go Fetch’ game, as a fair amount of time ‘playing’ involves chasing stray balls after a more experienced player slams another one right at the corner – but not if you’re one of the 300 million people who play it worldwide. Ping Pong took 100 years to gain the reputation as a legit-enough sport to become an Olympic event in 1988. From hipster table tennis parlors in Portland, independent Ping Pong clubs around the Northwest to PRO headquarters backroom in Beaverton, many seem to enjoy and appreciate the brain enriching activity. Who knew that the skills involved in Ping Pong can greatly benefit people with Parkinson’s?
More Than A Game
In a 2013 Lancet medical journal article, researchers liken the brain skills demanded from tango dancing, tai chi, and boxing to those found in Ping Pong. (I don’t know about you, but I would rather be seen being a freshman ping pong player in jeans and tennies than an uncoordinated tango dancer in stilettos and a low-cut, short dress.) World renowned Psychiatrist Daniel Amen, M.D. quips about table tennis – “Golf is good. Tennis is terrific. Table Tennis is the best sport in the world.” Why?
Think about some of the classic PD symptoms, such as imbalance, slowed thinking/strategy skills, slowed gross and fine motor skills, tremor, anxiety, depression, and oftentimes social isolation. Brain research has shown that Ping Pong stimulates 3 different parts of the brain that effect balance, generation of new brain cells, neuroplasticity (new neuropathways being carved out due to vigorous activity), and blood flow to the brain. The truth is that any aerobic activity will give you most of these results as well, but Ping Pong ranks high in the areas of the brain primarily due to anticipating and responding quickly in a small, 9X5 foot area.
In that small play area, a ping-ponger, by utilizing the prefrontal cortex portion of the brain, anticipates where the ball might land and then stimulates the cerebellum resulting in the fine motor control needed to hit the ball where it needs to go. A third area of the brain, the hippocampus, is also stimulated when a player engages in aerobic exercise from the fast-paced speed of the game. As exertion goes up, this part of the brain begins to create new brain cells and that can continue throughout adulthood.
Recognizing that playing Table Tennis was helping to improve some of their PD symptoms, two New Yorkers with PD birthed a program in 2017 they coined Ping Pong Parkinson. They organized the program to include warm-up exercises and Ping Pong technique before beginning the game, then partnered each player with a volunteer leader, rotating every 5 minutes, and ending their program with video footage of a Ponger’s skills and progress. (Not going to lie – that sounds terrifying.) Good news! Ping Pong could become your next great obsession and it could be fully justified with its brain benefits, unless you’d rather wear stilettos.