Bouncing Back with Ping-pong
Mention “brain games” and my first thought is of those computerized challenges that promise to boost memory and alertness in a sluggish cerebellum. Pop-up ads for mental agility tools flash across the screen every time I turn on my computer. Apparently, my laptop has detected my age and revealed it to an endless stream of marketers!
But mention “brain games” to Winston Maxwell, MD, and a very different vision pops up. It’s a bouncing ball on a Ping-Pong table that fires the neurons in this retired physician’s brain. “Everybody I have talked to in the neuroscience area considers table tennis ideal exercise because it works on balance, movement and the brain,” Maxwell says.
Diagnosed five years ago with Parkinson's disease, Maxwell, 79, treats Ping-Pong much like a prescription—he takes it regularly in an effort to stall the debilitating symptoms of an illness that muddles responses in body and mind.
“With Parkinson’s, everything slows down,” he says. “You can’t avoid getting worse, but the curve of disability is not so steep if you exercise.”
After 40 years as an internal medicine physician in Eugene, Maxwell took full retirement only when Parkinson’s forced him to refocus his priorities. No longer able to summon the agility he once enjoyed on the tennis court or the stability for wilderness hikes, he turned to Ping-Pong and found an engaging alternative. Table tennis sustains his determined pursuit of the benefits of exercise.
Regular doses of ping-pong help
ease symptoms of Parkinson's disease
At Maxwell's urging, I picked up a Ping-Pong paddle for the first time in perhaps 50 years when I met him at Willamalane Sports Center in Springfield where members of the Blazing Paddles club were exchanging volleys and camaraderie.
On a weekday morning, most of the two-dozen people squared off at eight Ping-Pong tables appear to be well into senior status. As I selected a paddle from the loaner basket, Maxwell introduced me to Dave Combs, a former steamship captain and a gradate of the US Merchant Marine Academy who now is setting the course for a growing group of Ping-Pong aficionados in this area.
"I started playing way back, maybe 1995, with a small group of people who really liked this activity," says Combs, 77. "I had recently retired and I was single. That gave me time to put into expanding this activity."
And expand, it has. From one table in Willamalane Senior Center to as many as 16 tables now available at Willamalane Sports Center. From half a dozen players to a membership of about 100 in the Blazing Paddles group that sponsors playing opportunities seven days a week. (www.lanetabletennis.net)
Combs estimates that 90 percent of the players are folks aged 60 and over who want exercise, mental stimulation and the social connection that a Ping-Pong match provides. About 90 per cent are men. Most, he says, are people who played a little Ping-Pong in the basement when they were growing up and now are coming back to the game in retirement. They are pursuing a fitness workout with fewer risks than athletic activities they may have enjoyed in earlier years
"I like to think of it as a community of people who come to play, but also find a social group," Combs says. "It is the friendly environment, I think, that holds a lot of people."
Nationally, table tennis has garnered significant endorsements for its contribution to physical and mental well-being as well for fostering social interaction. When New York City’s American Museum of Natural History mounted an exhibit on the human brain, it hosted a panel of Ping-Pong advocates to draw attention to the show.
New York University researcher, Wendy Suzuki MD, professor of neuroscience and psychology was a featured speaker. Suzuki contends that table tennis enhances both motor and mental functions. Researcher Suzuzki maintains that several areas of the brain are affected by a high-speed Ping-Pong match. Fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination involved with diving for the ball enhance the motor cortex and cerebellum, she says. Strategic planning skills are sharpened. And stimulation of the hippocampus enables us to form and retain memories of facts and events.
Maybe equally persuasive was the enthusiastic support of fellow panelist Will Shortz, the brain behind the New York Times’ crossword puzzles. Shortz calls himself a "table tennis addict."
My own experience with Pong-Pong pretty much ended with an undistinguished smattering of encounters at high school-era gatherings. But the senior athletes with Blazing Paddles weren’t content to let the story stop there. A gush of doubts spilled out of my past when a Blazing Paddles player stepped forward and invited me to join him for a few introductory pointers in Ping-Pong basics. Long ago I had determined to avoid any sport involving "sticks and balls."
My brain bristled with static as Robert Jacobucci, 72, demonstrated the recommended “hand-shake” hold on the paddle. He segued into upswings, downswings and backhand returns. Then he flipped a ball my way. My swing wasn’t graceful or accurate. I overshot the table on most returns. But very quickly, I was having fun! Provoking laughter and friendly banter from players at neighboring tables. I felt alert, awake, alive.
Keep your eye on the bouncing ball
to benefit brain and body
Even these preliminary volleys were forcing me to keep mind and eyes fully focused, reminding me of brain-building habits advocated by my neuroscientist friend Mike Merznich, PhD. Old brains often become lazy brains, Mike warns. We stop looking closely at things around us. We stop paying attention, literally, not moving our eyes as much as we do when we are young. If we let that laziness happen, slipping into “been there, done that” lethargy, alertness slows. Awareness wanes. We simply don't see or remember as much.
Ping-Pong, I quickly learned, has little tolerance for lazy eyes – at least not with a beginner. It presented a challenge that kept me on my toes, both physically and mentally.
“Table tennis has been a tremendous asset to me in the last eight years,” says Jacobucci, a retired physicist who moved West after a career in semi-conductor manufacture. “I feel it is truly a great brain sport," he says. "It gives you a feeling of well-being, flexibility, hand-eye coordination, stamina. And if you look at the older folks here, and how nimble they are--their reflexes. Just having to bend down and pick up the ball a couple hundred times, it really helps."
Winston Maxwell agrees. Three or four times a week he turns up for matches at Willamalane Sports Center. Not long ago, he moved his car out to fit a Ping-Pong table into the garage where he and his wife, Llew Wells, engage in friendly competitions.
"I am dealing with a litany of problems," Maxwell confirms. In addition to Parkinson's, there's a knee that gives him trouble. He persists in daily strolls of 30-45 minutes but feels stiff and awkward when he walks. Getting up from a sofa provides a major challenge. But put him in front of a Ping-Pong table and the disabilities seem to retreat a bit.
"I can hop around at the table tennis table like it's a different world," he says with a tone of satisfaction. “At table tennis, for whatever reason, I still seem fairly agile. I can still sort of move around and get the shots."
Carolyn Kortge of Eugene is a former Register-Guard editor and writer.
Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.