Put Ping-Pong On The Prescription Pad: A Surprising Drug-free Alternative For Help In Managing Depression, Dementia, And Parkinson's Symptoms

Dorothy Delow, 101-year-old playing ping pong to help manage her mental health
Dorothy Delow, 101-year-old ping-pong champ

It was heartbreaking to watch. A relative's mental health and overall wellbeing began to deteriorate rapidly following her husband's death from cancer. It was hard enough to see her struggle during her spouse's prolonged illness.

But losing him, as well as dealing with other physical ailments of her own, was enough to catapult her into a severe depression. Despite repeated attempts to alleviate her symptoms (including several antidepressants, ECT treatments, and hospitalizations), she continued to wrestle with depression for years on end.

I visited her on different occasions. Each time after my visit, when the heaviness in my chest became tolerable, my mind kicked into high gear. What else would help? What other options were there? Was there something the doctors had missed? Was there some answer located outside of the box that we hadn't yet discovered?

I knew she loved to play ping-pong. I had played with her before at many a family gathering. She was damn good! The closest I had seen her come to expressing joy were the times she played table tennis with her family. I wondered what the overall, long-term effect on her mental health would be if she engaged in a competitive game of ping-pong at least 5 days a week, for a minimum of half an hour.  

We checked out several different options, but there wasn't a place with a ping-pong table and a skilled partner to play with her daily, not even me, unfortunately.

She did, over time, get better.

I didn't have the opportunity to put my idea to the test at that particular time. I still wonder, however, if a regular routine of playing ping-pong might have alleviated her depression sooner. And might it have any other benefits as well? 

Can playing table tennis help prevent and/or treat depression?

It's widely known that exercise can improve mood. More evidence to support this comes from a May 2019 article from Harvard Health, called "More Evidence That Exercise Can Boost Mood."

The article cited a study published online in January 2019 by JAMA Psychiatry, that found "...a 26% decrease in odds for becoming depressed for each major increase in objectively measured physical activity," said study author Karmel Choi, who is a research fellow at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

"This increase in physical activity is what you might see on your activity tracker if you replaced 15 minutes of sitting with 15 minutes of running or one hour of sitting with one hour of moderate activity like brisk walking." 

A separate article from Science Daily, "Physical Activity as a Preventive Strategy Against Depression," also mentions this same 2019 study by Karmel Choi, and concludes in regard to this study that "A team of investigators has used a novel research method to strongly support physical activity as a preventive measure for depression."

If you play a competitive game of table tennis, I think it's safe to say that this workout can classify as moderate physical activity, akin to brisk walking. Replace half an hour of sitting with half an hour of "brisk" ping-pong and feel the endorphins kick in!

I can say from personal experience that when I play with a well-matched partner, I get at least an equally intense workout playing ping-pong as I do by brisk walking.

Anecdotal evidence of how playing table tennis helped treat depression.

In Jennifer Rigby's Channel 4 News (August 2013) article, "Why Ping-Pong Just Might Be the Elixir of Youth," she writes about a documentary made by Britdoc/Banyak Films called Ping Pong.

The film followed eight players on their way to the over-80s world table tennis championships in China. One of the players, 101-year-old Dorothy Delow (whose picture is displayed at the beginning of my article), had lost her husband and daughter. She came to the conclusion that "I was playing table tennis, and I think that saved me."

Sometimes anecdotal evidence speaks louder than scientific. If only my relative could have been inspired by Dorothy Delow. It could have perhaps shaved years off her recovery time.

But wait!  The benefits in health and wellness don't stop here. There's more good news on the ping-pong horizon.

Can ping-pong help to prevent dementia (Alzheimer's)?

The research also found surprisingly, that ping-pong can help in the fight against Alzheimer's and dementia.

Scientific research supports the little-known fact that "ping-pong therapy" is known to improve brain function in the following ways:

1. Playing table tennis can bolster long-term memory 

In Rachel Moss's July 2015 article in The Huffington Post UK ("Alzheimer's Disease Could Have A Drug-Free And Effective Treatment Via Table Tennis)," scientists from the Bounce Alzheimer's Therapy Foundation (BAT) evaluated data from MRI scans during their research. They found that table tennis can help lessen cognitive decline and bolster long-term memory for those living with Alzheimer's.

2. The sport can lessen the need for medication

According to a Japanese study in Ontario Table Tennis News (December 2017 “The Effectiveness of Exercise Intervention on Brain Disease Patients: Utilizing Table Tennis as a Rehabilitation Program”), via playing ping pong, Alzheimer’s sufferers showed a reduced need for medication.

3. Engaging in ping-pong stimulates the hippocampus (the part of the brain that creates new memories)

The Japanese study goes on to explain that the hippocampus shrinks in size in those with Alzheimer’s and dementia. But once those same people engage in playing ping pong, blood flow increases substantially to the brain and stimulates the hippocampus to the point where it can actually increase in size and act as a protective mechanism against Alzheimer’s ravaging effects.

4. Ping-pong stimulates 5 separate parts of the brain simultaneously

They also found on the MRI scans that ping pong can activate up to five different sections of study participants' brains at the same time. 

5. Playing ping-pong regularly dramatically decreased brain deterioration

To sum up, the Japanese researchers found significantly less brain deterioration on the MRI scans of those who engaged in playing ping-pong, as opposed to those who didn't.

active and healthy brain if you play ping pong

But wait. There's more!

Can table tennis help manage Parkinson's?

Doctors and other health professionals are now suggesting that playing table tennis regularly can help improve Parkinson's symptoms. 

According to a news update from News 12 of New Jersey, a non-profit organization called Ping-Pong Parkinson came into being because it was recognized that "...playing ping pong is a fantastic way of working on hand-eye coordination, and exercising your cognitive skills,” says Dr. Elana Clar, with North Jersey Brain and Spine Center.

"People have noticed a reduction in their tremors, people have noticed improvements in their handwriting, and it overall just improves everybody's activities of daily living."

The results from yet another Japanese study (first published April 2020) provide evidence that a table tennis exercise program can be safe and effective at improving some aspects of motor function seen in daily life and motor symptoms of patients with Parkinson's Disease.

Specifically, in this study by Keniche Inoue, the patients participated in 5-hour exercise sessions once a week for 6 months. All the patients were assessed with MDS Unified Parkinson’s Disease Rating Scale (MDS-UPDRS) parts I–IV.

Among the UPDRS part II, subscores of speech, saliva and drooling, dressing, handwriting, doing hobbies and other activities, getting out of bed, a car, or a deep chair, and walking and balance were significantly improved.

Among MDS-UPDRS part III, subscores of facial expression, rigidity, posture, bradykinesia (slowness of movement), and kinetic tremor of the hands were significantly improved.

It is entirely possible a new study that included regular playing, more often than once a week as per the Japanese 2020 study, might yield even more significant results, but that is yet to be determined. A national multi-center study to further explore the finding is underway.

What are the social benefits of ping-pong?

The game also encourages social connections with others, as ping-pong can't be played solo. Particularly for seniors, isolation can lead to depression. Amidst the current Covid pandemic, table tennis is arguably the best and safest game in which to participate. With only 2-4 players (usually just 2) separated by a net and a good 8 feet, 9 inches of space between players, ping-pong is a wise choice all around.

I myself love to play the game and have coined the term "ping-pong buzz" to refer to the mental and emotional state when one is in the heat of a game, engaged, endorphins have kicked in, and one's mind is activated to its fullest potential.

I've found ping-pong rallying (without keeping score), to be a great conversation stimulator as well. Sometimes the less intense focus on conversation, coupled with something to keep the body and mind occupied, can lead to extraordinary discussions.

I've even been known to use a match of ping-pong to resolve marital disputes - if I win, you take the trash out, if you win, you take the trash out!

If ever there were such a thing as a mental health and wellness panacea, I'd call it the Ping-Pong Panacea.

I'm a writer, mental health advocate, and the author of a novel, Lullabies in Bedlam. I live with my hubby and Schnoodle pup Milo in LA.

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