by RUSSELL MCLENDON
Ping-Pong, or table tennis, is played by some 300 million people worldwide, according to the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF), making it one of Earth’s most popular sports. It has been an Olympic sport since 1988, and its U.S. cachet has spiked in recent years amid the rise of hip Ping-Pong hangouts like New York’s SPiN and Portland’s Pips & Bounce.
It’s not hard to see why. Ping-Pong is accessible for beginners, has relatively low injury risk, and works as a boozy bar game or intense test of wills. And despite long being relegated to garages and basements, Ping-Pong is also increasingly billed as a “brain sport,” featuring a mix of aerobics, strategy, quickness and coordination.
“There is a lot going on in table tennis,” says Wendy Suzuki, a tenured professor of neuroscience at New York University and author of “Healthy Brain, Happy Life,” a new book exploring 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.”
Of course, Ping-Pong is only one path to the mental perks of exercise, Suzuki adds, and since not enough research has focused on its effects, we can’t be sure how it stacks up with other options. Many people prefer simpler activities like walking and running, for example, or more aerobic, larger-scale sports like lawn tennis.
Still, Ping-Pong has a certain mojo that’s hard to replicate. Its small playing area tends to accelerate the action, encouraging players to think and move at a dizzying pace. It’s a game of strategy, too, like high-speed chess without chairs. And not only can it complement a broader fitness regimen, but it’s also a gateway sport, masquerading as mindless fun until it gets our brains — and bodies — hooked on speed.
The sport of pings
Table tennis, like its outdoor ancestor, was born in England. The sport dates back to the late 19th century, according to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and was pushing players to use their heads from the very beginning:
“It is thought that upper-class Victorians in England invented table tennis in the 1880s as a genteel, after-dinner alternative to lawn tennis, using whatever they could find as equipment. A line of books would often be the net, the rounded top of a champagne cork would be the ball and occasionally a cigar box lid would be a racket.”
This inspired several commercial spinoffs by the 1890s, although they didn’t sell well because the balls were either rubber (too wild) or cork (too mild), explains the ITTF. When celluloid balls debuted in 1900, table tennis finally got the bounce it needed.
Beyond changing the game itself, celluloid balls also gave it a new name: “Ping-Pong.” That phrase reportedly came from an 1884 song by English songwriter Harry Dacre, repurposed to describe the sound of a celluloid ball bouncing off a paddle.
Early versions of the game also went by a variety of other names, including: Whiff-Waff, Pim-Pam, Flim-Flam, Gossima, Netto and Parlor Tennis.
“Ping-Pong” proved most popular, but since it was trademarked, many similar games were marketed simply as table tennis. That remains the sport’s official name, yet while Ping-Pong is still a U.S. trademark — now owned by Indiana-based Escalade Sports — it also lives on as a widespread nickname for the sport.
The first standard rules, and world championships, came in 1926 with the founding of the ITTF. Japan’s Hiroji Satoh later upended the table-tennis world in 1952, and not just as the first non-European player to win a world title: He became the first person in history to win using a paddle coated in foam rubber. Its spin was a literal game-changer, and table tennis soon embraced foam as its future.
That began a shift in Ping-Pong power from Europe to Asia, as Japan, China and Korea went on to dominate international play for decades. The sport also served as a cultural and political bridge, most famously in the April 1971 Ping-Pong diplomacy, which helped restore relations between the U.S. and China.
Seventeen years later, table tennis debuted at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, giving the former parlor game a new level of athletic legitimacy. Players have backed it up, too, smashing a 2.7-gram (0.1-ounce) ball at up to 150 kilometers per hour (93 miles per hour), often with seemingly impossible spin. But even at less than Olympic speeds, Ping-Pong can bring a lot more to the table than its casual origins might suggest.
Live pong and prosper
“I play table tennis for the same reason people do crosswords,” says Will Shortz, New York Times crossword puzzle editor and owner of Westchester Table Tennis Center (WTTC) in Pleasantville, New York. “It refreshes me and relaxes me. I get wrapped up in a game, and afterward I feel great and ready to go back to life.”
Shortz is famed for his puzzle-building skills, with a list of accolades too long to list here, but he’s also a table-tennis celebrity. He opened the WTTC in 2011, and even recently helped 18-year-old Chinese player Kai Zhang move to New York, where he’s already ranked No. 1 in the U.S. and hopes to represent his new country in the Olympics. But perhaps Shortz’s main claim to Ping-Pong fame is The Streak:
The Streak was only meant to last a year, but as the video above notes, Shortz kept going past 365 days because “his brain was too happy.” In fact, he still plays daily, and has done so for more than three-and-a-half years. When we spoke recently, he was still going strong at nearly 1,300 consecutive days of Ping-Pong.
“It built up over time. I had other streaks before I started this one,” he says. “I had one streak that went for 80 days before I had a trip to Europe and broke it. The next one went for 280 days before I missed a day.” That was in Croatia, where he’d made plans to play at a local table-tennis club but couldn’t get there in time.
“That was the last day I missed,” he adds. “Oct. 3, 2012, was the last day I didn’t play.”
Shortz says he isn’t aware of, or interested in, any official record for such a streak. He really just plays Ping-Pong every day because it rejuvenates him.
“Any exercise is good if it gets blood going through the entire body,” he says. “I think table tennis is especially good because it’s a brain sport, training your body to perform instantly in different situations.” By forcing us to anticipate our opponents’ moves, then react with both speed and precision, Ping-Pong “is a way of getting the brain and the body prepared for everything else you do in life.”
Staying on the ball
So what actually happens inside your head during Ping-Pong? We don’t have the brain scans to know for sure, but other exercise research does provide some hints. Based on her professional expertise in neuroscience, plus her personal experience with exercise, Suzuki offers a few basic examples of your brain on Ping-Pong:
• 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 are vital chemicals that regulate various brain functions, and aerobic exercise affects major ones like dopamine (movement, emotional responses, feelings of pleasure), serotonin (mood, appetite, sleep, memory) and norepinephrine (stress response). On top of boosting moods in the short-term, regular exercise is associated with reduced 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: 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.”
All pings to all people
Playing Ping-Pong can do wonders for our brains, but Suzuki adds an important footnote: “One caveat is that if you play really slowly, those benefits may drop off. So these comments are more about the aerobic play of Ping-Pong.”
The idea of Ping-Pong as aerobic exercise might have seemed silly in the early 20th century, and some people still see it more as a casual game than a serious sport. But therein lies its beauty: Thanks to a simple premise and variable pace, Ping-Pong can be both. It’s accessible to beginners who need to play slowly, but regular practice also trains veteran players to move (and think) at incredible speeds.
One of those veterans is Sean O’Neill, a former Olympic player and coach who was inducted into the USA Table Tennis (USATT) Hall of Fame in 2008. Video of Olympic table tennis on TV and YouTube “has shown the dynamic ability of the players on a more regular basis,” he says, and inspired a surge of popularity. “More and more recreational players are buying professional quality equipment to copy the pros.”
As an Olympian, O’Neill says he loves to see the sport’s increasingly global appeal. “No matter where you go, table tennis is viewed as a great sport which anyone can play. I think most people are attracted due to the non-discriminatory nature of the sport,” he says, noting that it can be fun for people of all ages, sizes, physical conditions or skill levels. And that makes it especially valuable as an entry point for people who might not otherwise see themselves as athletes.
“We see a trend of both creative people and those from science really fall in love with the sport,” O’Neill says. “There is something about fast-action problem solving with spin, speed and placement that seems to excite these crowds. It is non-impact and a great cardio workout with low joint and bone stress. Many players have a tough time stopping once they pick up the paddle.”
Head of the table
Shortz clearly fits that profile. “I’m an obsessive person,” he admits, but “in a good way, I think.” And while his level of commitment may be uncommon, he agrees with O’Neill that this everyman’s sport has unusual appeal for eggheads, too.
“My experience is that table tennis attracts smart people,” Shortz says. “You don’t have to be a genius to play, but it helps to have something on the ball.”
Ping-Pong’s popularity has waxed and waned over time, he adds, and it still has a long way to go before most Americans see it as a serious sport. “But I think things are on the upswing,” he says. “It has become semi-cool. Social Ping-Pong clubs are open all around now, and I think being in the Olympics has conferred legitimacy.”
Its reputation as a brain sport may be helping, too, although Suzuki notes we can’t easily quantify a sport’s braininess. Almost any aerobic activity could be considered a brain sport, and there isn’t enough research to indicate more cognitive benefits from table tennis than from basketball or badminton. Instead of waiting for that research to come out, however, she has a better idea: Do the research yourself.
“I like to encourage people to do their own experiments on themselves,” she says. “See if you notice the mood shift from exercise. People get sucked back into, ‘Oh, I’m so busy, I’m so stressed, I don’t have time for that,’ without noticing how much even a single bout of exercise can improve your mood and give you more energy.
“Just do it once,” she adds, “and see if it motivates you to continue.”
If it’s still a habit 1,300 days later, your brain must be pretty happy.