The No. 1 brain sport

Mark Dekeyser

By Mark Dekeyser

How do we stay mentally sharp as we age? Some try computer programs such as Lumosity (www.lumosity.com) or Fitbrains (www.fitbrains.com), others may prefer puzzles such as Sudoku and crosswords. We may be surprised to learn that physical activity is also good for our brains. Any type of physical activity can be valuable. The top physical activity for the brain is table tennis, say some experts.

Table tennis is the most popular racket sport in the world with over 300 million active players, according to the international table tennis federation (www.ittf.com). Table tennis has been an Olympic sport since 1988; the 2016 Olympic Games in Table Tennis were held in Brazil with Chinese players Ma Long and Ding Ning as winners in the men’s and women’s singles tournaments, respectively. The World Table Tennis Championships was recently held in Germany in 2017 with 606 athletes and 108 nations taking part. Table tennis can be played at any age; at the World Veteran Championships, which is held every two years, players compete in different age categories ranging from over-40 to over-90. Since the first championships were held in 1982, the list of players has grown from 450 to 4602 and the list of participating countries has risen from 21 to 82 (www.wvc2018.com). In 2000, these championships were held in Vancouver. At the most recent Championships held in Spain there were 10 competitors in the over-90 men’s categories and 11 competitors in the 85-89 age women’s category.

When asked what benefits he has found through playing table tennis, 61-year-old Ajay Choi of Markham, Ontario, who started playing the sport at age 10, said: “I feel like I can concentrate on my work better the next day after playing table tennis. It is a good exercise to train your body and your mind.”

He sees table tennis becoming more popular in Canada as many young children are picking up the sport.

Dave French started playing table tennis at age 14 and credits the sport for helping him stay mentally as well as physically fit.

Ajay is not alone in the belief that table tennis is good for the brain; 55-year-old Dave French, who started playing the sport at age 14, also credits table tennis for helping him stay mentally as well as physically active: “It’s good exercise and is a great strategic game, keeping my mind active. Table tennis is just a really fun game.”

And 71-year-old Alain Thomas, who has been playing table tennis continuously since age 11 with several senior titles to his credit, suggested: “Taking up table tennis was an excellent decision from a health point of view.” Alain also believes that table tennis improved his general level of fitness: “Serious training and competition kept me fit, away from obesity and other problems.”

What we have learned from those who study mental processes is that exercise boosts brain power. John Medina, director of the Brain Center for Applied Learning Research at Seattle Pacific University, asserts that aerobic exercise, done at least twice per week, can reduce the risk of dementia by half.

Table tennis provides an excellent aerobic exercise since it is such a fast sport; players have only milliseconds to react to incoming balls which can travel at speeds over 100 mph. It is a game that requires excellent concentration, quick thinking, balance, agility, technique, and speed; only players with above average fitness can hope to reach a high skill level.

Alain Thomas has been playing table tennis continuously since age 11 with several senior titles to his credit.

According to Dr. Daniel Amen, a brain imaging expert, table tennis (ping-pong) is the world’s best brain sport because it forces you to use many different areas of the brain at the same time. The unpredictability and high speed of play require mental and physical agility. Having to make quick decisions about which stroke to use in the return shot, to anticipate where the opponent will hit the ball, to exercise fine-motor control, and to develop efficient hand-eye coordination can help improve brain functions which regulate decision making, problem solving, and voluntary movements.

“There is a lot going on in table tennis,” says Wendy Suzuki, a professor of neuroscience at New York University and author of “Healthy Brain, Happy Life,” a book that explores how physical exercise can affect the human brain.

“Attention is increasing, memory is increasing, you have a better mood. And you’re building motor circuits in your brain. A bigger part of your brain is being activated.” She summarizes the sport’s impressive and varied benefits: “In Ping-Pong, we have enhanced motor functions, enhanced strategy functions, and enhanced long-term memory functions.”

So what actually happens inside your head during table tennis? Suzuki offers the following examples of your brain on table tennis:
Mood: “The one thing we know that can happen immediately, that certainly happens to me when I exercise, is the mood boost,” Suzuki says. “This is not specific to table tennis; anything that is aerobic will give you a mood boost, because it increases the neurotransmitters that are decreased in depression.”

Neurotransmitters regulate various brain functions, and aerobic exercise affects major ones like dopamine (regulates movement, emotional responses, feelings of pleasure), serotonin (regulates mood, appetite, sleep, memory) and norepinephrine (regulates stress response). In addition to improving moods in the short-term, regular exercise can reduce depression and anxiety over time.

Motor control: There are other long-term perks, too. “We know there are a lot of changes in the motor cortex, the part of the brain’s outer covering that lights up when you do any voluntary movement, and in the cerebellum, which is critical for fine motor control,” Suzuki says. “This is a wonderful example of brain plasticity, the ability of the brain to change based on an experience or environmental factors.”

Memory: “Mental activity is stimulated through increased blood flow to the brain allowing us to form and retain long-term facts and events. Aerobic activity can also raise levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that promotes neuron growth and survival, thus helping fend off diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. In fact, exercise is a great way to get new brain cells”, says Suzuki, who specializes in brain regions linked to memory. “The hippocampus is special not only because it’s important for memory, but also because it’s one of the only brain structures that keeps making brand new brain cells into adulthood,” she says. “In most of the brain, whatever cells you’re born with are all you get. But in the hippocampus, there’s a steady birth of new brain cells throughout our adult life. And the cool thing is we know that physical aerobic exercise will stimulate the growth of more brain cells and will help them survive longer. In studies of animals, that’s correlated with increases in various kinds of memory.”

Attention: “And the final one, the one we know the most about in humans, is that increased aerobic exercise will improve your ability to shift and focus attention,” she says. “Certainly that’s what you’re getting in table tennis. You’re getting improved attention, and you’re practicing your attention capacities — keeping your eye on the ball, anticipating what will happen next.”

There are additional health benefits from playing this sport; table tennis can also: sharpen the senses, improve reflexes, provide a social outlet, promote weight loss, improve balance and relieve stress.

When they are added up, the brain and health benefits are enormous and it’s plain to see why table tennis is a no. 1 brain sport.

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