vBumping a ping pong ball back and forth may not seem like a great sport. After all, it doesn’t usually require any real athletic ability other than 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 the hand). As you move from side to side, strategically plan your next shot, and hit the ball, a whole host of systems in your brain and body fire up, making regular table tennis sessions a secret boon to longevity.
If anyone should know this connection firsthand, it’s family physician Danine Fruge, MD, medical director of the Pritikin Longevity Center (where she often points visitors to on-site table tennis) and former NCAA Division I tennis player I had tennis and longevity when I was teaching people in their 90s at a country club,” she says. “And I noticed two things: Playing a racquet sport seemed to keep these people young, and they always had fun while they played.”
Research backs it up: racquet sports (like tennis, badminton, and squash) have proven to be one of the best longevity-prolonging sports. But not everyone has access to a seat — or the knees, or the energy to run back and forth on one, Dr. question to consider. This piqued her interest in table tennis, which involves many of the same movements and thought processes as tennis (and some as it can be even faster) but requires no training or a particular level of fitness to start playing. And you can even play it on virtually any table with a retractable ping-pong net.
The barrier to entry drops even further considering that table tennis is generally thought of as a pastime or game, and Not as an exercise. “It really comes as a surprise to people when we tell them that table tennis can support their longevity,” says Dr. Fruge, “Because they’re like, ‘How can something so fun be so healthy?'” Interestingly, that joy is actually part of the benefits of the activity. “There’s a level of strategy and excitement to table tennis that you just can’t get from running 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] means performing multiple actions simultaneously, rapidly, and sequentially.” – Danine Fruge, MD, Medical Director at the Pritikin Longevity Center
Like normal tennis, table tennis is a brain and body supporting game. “It’s about carrying out several actions at the same time, quickly and one after the other,” says Dr. question “For example, when you move your leg, one part of the brain activates, when you flick your wrist, it’s another. Judging the distance of the ball coming your way is another. And all of these exercises simultaneously integrate several different brain circuits that we know are associated with longevity.”
In the following, Dr. Fruge all the mental and physical effects of table tennis, making the humble pastime a place in your longevity-enhancing arsenal.
Here are 3 ways playing table tennis can increase your longevity, according to science
1. It trains your brain
Scientists have known since the early 1990’s that table tennis is associated with greater mental performance into old age, and regular table tennis can help maintain your mental abilities. When 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 greater effect on cognitive function. This mental advantage is likely due to the fact that the sport uses multiple brain regions at once, as Dr. Fruge described above.
Take the prefrontal cortex — the strategy and thinking part of the brain — involved in memory storage and retrieval, says Dr. question In a game of ping-pong, you tap this area of the brain every time you plan your next shot or anticipate your opponent’s move, even if your execution isn’t as…great as you planned. “Where the ball goes is not as important as the fact that you had it Thought about where you wanted it,” says Dr. question “It’s the key to how the brain works.”
“By activating the prefrontal cortex with table tennis, you can actually increase memory and cognition.” -DR. question
During the game, the more you focus on catching your partner’s punches, the more you “tighten” that prefrontal cortex, which can strengthen like a muscle over time. “There’s evidence of something called neuroplasticity that the brain actually gets used to and gets good at whatever you do repeatedly,” says Dr. question “So by activating the prefrontal cortex with table tennis, you can actually increase memory and cognition.” (That’s why there are now table tennis programs specifically for people with Parkinson’s and dementia, like PingPongParkinson and Sport & Art Educational Foundation.)
That’s not all the brain activity involved in a game of ping pong. During play, your brain also activates large and fine motor skills (aka moving your extremities and hand), as well as your vision and hearing systems, says Dr. question Hearing the ball click on the racquets 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 this sensory input simultaneously to hit the ball (aka hand-eye coordination) requires these different brain processes to be in sync.
At the same time, your brain can also be involved in non-direct communication. “You don’t really have to look at someone or focus on what they’re saying during a game, but you’ll probably hear them say, ‘Good shot’ or ‘You miss!’ which enables socialization and connection,” says Dr. question The more you laugh and enjoy the back and forth, the more you support your brain’s health and longevity, she says.
2. It improves your mobility
dr Fruge says that table tennis uses fast-twitch muscle fibers — fibers in your muscle that provide a lot of power for short bursts — in ways that walking or lifting weights don’t. Why? During the game you have only a few seconds to react and move your body towards an approaching ball. Every time you lunge sideways or throw an arm to hit a high ball, you’re engaging those fast-reacting fibers.
Once you’ve practiced these moves enough times and strengthened those fast-twitch fibers along the way, there’s a better chance you’ll avoid nasty slips and falls, further assuring your longevity. (Falls are the leading cause of injury-related deaths in people 65 and older.) “Anytime you’re on an uneven surface and you have strong, fast-twitch muscles, you’ll automatically control bumps and impacts more effectively,” he tells Dr. question “The same applies to stepping over a curb or a threshold or catching a misstep. The more responsive your fast-twitch muscles are, the less likely you are to fall.”
3. You get your pulse going
Sure, it’s not exactly a five-mile sprint, but that doesn’t mean table tennis can’t be an aerobic activity. In fact, a 2012 study conducted by the Mayo Clinic found that table tennis can support brain health, not only because it involves all that juicy brain coordination mentioned above, but because it gets your blood pumping. And every time you increase your heart rate through physical exercise, you also increase your longevity.
“You’ll be surprised how quickly you work up a sweat during a game of table tennis,” says Dr. question And that’s largely the result of those fast-twitch muscles delivering short, repeated bursts of power every time you hit the ball.
“After about 15 minutes of creating these rapid bursts of activity, the game resembles high-intensity interval training — even if you don’t realize it,” says Dr. question And that has its own advantages: ‘Although you might take breaks, you’re more likely to be playing even longer than you would normally practice, since you’re unlikely to feel that bored, aching feeling of ‘Am I almost done now?’ with a game of table tennis.”
Our editors independently select these products. By making a purchase through our links, Well+Good may earn a commission.