Ping Pong + Parkinson’s = ???

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People with Parkinson’s are reaping benefits by playing ping pong on a regular basis.  The advantages appear to be wide-ranging:

  • According to a preliminary study in Japan, participants with Parkinson’s (average age: 73) who took part in a table-tennis training program once a week for six months demonstrated “significant improvements in speech, handwriting, getting dressed, getting out of bed, and walking.”
  • Additionally, participants “showed significant improvements in facial expression, posture, rigidity, slowness of movement and hand tremors, all of which are common symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.”
  • However, if you click over to the site, you’ll read that its driving force has to do with neuroplasticity:  “Our model is based on the concept of neuroplasticity – the brain’s capacity to make new neurons and connections through challenging physical exercise.” 
  • Furthermore, it’s fun.
  • And finally, it makes my movement disorders specialist gasp.

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About that last point (which also pertains to the concept of neuroplasticity), I’ll show you a video of me during one of my lessons:

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For the first 45 seconds, my teacher and I are just volleying back and forth from his right corner to mine.  I, a beginner at ping pong, do OK with this, because I’ve trained myself to focus only and precisely on how my racquet hits the ball.  I don’t think about where the ball will land on my opponent’s side of the table, nor do I even look across the net to his side.  When my racquet smacks the ball, that’s the only spot where my attention is.  To this day I find it counterintuitive, but it seems to do the trick.

My movement disorder specialist watched this video during my last appointment with her.  She was attentive at first, but then she gasped at the 45 sec. spot, when my teacher changes the drill by having me hit two back hand balls from my left corner of the table, then shuffle over to the right corner and hit a forehand return, then shuffle back to the left corner and repeat.  Gasp!

That’s totally wacky, if you think about it.  I have to keep my mind on squarely hitting the ball, but I also have to divert some of my attention to my legs, training them to shuffle correctly from one side of the table to the other.  And I have to coordinate two back hands for every forehand.  A lot of mental work going on!

This, I believe, is what neuroplasticity is all about.

Here’s a long quote from “Ping Pong for Brain Health” in Brain and Memory Health:

“…in the 1990s two Japanese neuroscientists studied 3000 older ping pong players and discovered that this sport uniquely activates as many as five separate parts of the brain simultaneously. They observed physical, mental, and emotional improvements that included no longer requiring wheelchair assistance for walking, and a drop in acute depression.

“In 2016, scientists performed before-and-after cognitive tests and brain scans on healthy men and women 60 years old and older who played ping pong for one hour twice a week for ten weeks. They showed improvements in cognitive scores, growth of neurons in the hippocampus — a key area for memory and learning — and increased thickness of the cortex, a brain region needed for higher thought processes. This was especially important because the cortex is a part of the brain that shrinks the most with aging. A study of 164 Korean women aged 60 and older showed that table tennis improved more brain function than dancing, walking, gymnastics or resistance training.

“Wendy Suzuki, professor of neuroscience at New York University, believes that ping pong enhances brain function in a way no other sport can. The fine motor control and hand-eye coordination involved with dodging and diving for the ball engage the primary motor cortex and cerebellum, areas responsible for arm and hand movement. By anticipating an opponent’s shot, a player uses the prefrontal cortex for strategic planning. Studies have found that ping pong helps older players improve function of the frontal lobes of the brain, which regulate decision making, problem-solving, and voluntary movements. Having to calculate the speed, spin, and placement of the ball, usually in less than a second, keeps the brain fully engaged.”

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And did I mention it’s also fun?

To find out more, I suggest you check out, including their Facebook page.  I’d also like to thank Nenad Bach, a Croation-American rock star who lost the ability to play his guitar when he got Parkinson’s, but found that ping pong helped him retrieve this talent.  Nenad is the key mover and shaker in the Ping Pong Parkinson movement.  He’s backed by Art Dubow, a retired psychiatrist who doesn’t have Parkinson’s but is an avid ping pong player and one of our group’s leaders.  Finally, my teacher, whom you see in the video, is named Kokou.  He’s from Togo and this summer competed for his country in the Tokyo Summer Olympics.  I couldn’t ask for a better instructor.




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