Basically I have a low threshold for boredom and this is especially true when it comes to exercising. I know I should exercise thus I keep making plans to do it. However, almost all my strategies stay in the realm of “it’s a good idea.” To this end I’ve made some fantastic playlists to accompany me on my walks thinking surely these compelling tunes will keep me distracted from counting how many minutes I’ve trekked and how many more to go. This is to no avail. I love my playlists but they are no match for the sense of boredom that soon sets in after leaving my front door. I’ve tried Zumba DVDs and they have been a slightly better choice for me. But soon my enthusiasm begins to fail and I don’t have the spirit for one more “traveling salsa” move. I’ve always enjoyed the water, exalting in being free of gravity’s pull. However, when swimming is coupled with exercise such as swimming laps, it turns into some sort of torture for me. I count the laps while looking at the clock anticipating the moment when I can stop this misery and just float on my back feeling the sensuous pleasure of weightlessness. Darn it, no aerobics are involved in just floating so it doesn’t count as enhancing my metabolism.
I keep blowing these good intentions off because these activities, for the most part, are devoid of pleasure. I’m amazed when people talk about the ecstasy they find in taking their daily walk. And I know it is true for them. I can see it in their faces as they describe their daily strolls.
As I said, my search for the “perfect” exercise has spanned decades and the pounds keep creeping on. A friend told me of a Tai Chi instructor who would send her into bliss for the rest of the day following her class. Encouraged by the sound of that, I signed up for a 6-week course. The first session found me entering a low-ceilinged room, dim lights, and “cool out” music playing at such a low level it seemed almost subliminal. It reminded me of the buzz of a mosquito and I just wanted to slap it. About a dozen of us shifted with agonizingly slow movements: first holding an imaginary ball in front of us and then moving into gathering the light like sheaves of wheat. I figured I could force myself to hang in there for an hour. But when the hour came and went, I realized the session was actually an hour and a half and I thought I would detonate, kablooey all over the room before it was over. Needless to say, I didn’t go back.
And then a miracle happened. After no less than 4 decades of searching I’ve found the perfect exercise for me. It’s ping pong, or some call it table tennis. I overheard someone in my chorus say that he has lost 12 pounds. This is a man who already looks quite fit. I asked him how he did it. And he said by playing senior ping pong. I was immediately intrigued. How could hitting a little ball with the paddle possibly provide enough deep breathing and movement to lose weight? He said he really worked up a sweat doing it and told me of a couple of senior centers that accommodate drop-in games.
Well, I told myself it was worth a try. I’m basically an optimistic person and with eager anticipation I bought myself a paddle (you have to bring your own paddle but the center provides the balls) and looked up on the Internet the times, places, and days that were available.
I already had a good pair of walking/running shoes. I went by a local sports store and bought a medium priced paddle. I figured I didn’t need one of professional grade but I also felt I didn’t want the cheapest one either. (I now have my eye on a professional grade paddle, but that’s another story).
The first surprise for me was that it was free. I walked into a brightly lit room with three tables and a variety of men and women totally engrossed in slamming a ball back and forth. A kind man, Walter, came up to me and as soon as a table was free he offered to do some practice shots with me. I hadn’t touched of paddle for over 55 years. Surprisingly it didn’t take me long to get back a bit of my hand-eye coordination. And soon we were playing a game of doubles.
I must say my first few sessions I didn’t last more than 20 minutes before I was in a sweat and, best of all, I didn’t look at the clock once. My fellow chorus member was right; it was an incredible work out. I was stretching, moving from my waist, from my shoulder, stepping quickly to the right or the left. When playing doubles you take turns hitting the ball back. So once you hit it you have to get out of the way so your partner can step up and return the next ball. I found it took a lot of concentration and could see that there was lots of room to perfect my skill. And I loved the competition. It wasn’t so cut-throat as to be over-whelming. But it was there as a prompt to encourage me to improve my skill and not let my teammate down. And playing with seniors was a pleasure. These are people who have been on the planet for a while and who understand the meaning of kindness and civility. They recognize that this is a game and not a life and death situation and they know how to support one another in positive ways. It is supposed to be fun. They’re easy with one another. And I must say the camaraderie, the social aspect of it, is an extra point in its favor.
I learned a lot about my temperament and nature when I stumbled on this most delightful form of exercise. What ping pong offers me, that I didn’t get in walking, swimming, or dancing, is that sense of competition. In analyzing why I like this activity I recalled the last time I truly enjoyed exercising. It was some years ago when I was riding my horse preparing for show-jumping in competition. I found that in order for me to exercise there need to be some key ingredients present: it needs to be a high energy activity and must have the added element of competition.
Ping pong for me is just perfect. Besides being high energy and competitive, I can start to feel some success even in my state of being terribly out of shape. And isn’t that the point? We must each find that perfect exercise that fits our temperament, our nature, and our ability. When we discover what is right for us then it is not a matter of will power, or counting the laps. Time is no longer a factor. In fact, time disappears when you are having fun and when it is good for the body and the brain, so much the better.
I had the intuition that it was also good for my brain and so I looked it up on the internet and sure enough there’s lots of research as to how ping pong is beneficial in many ways. It has been called “chess on steroids.”
Here’s some of the research I found:
“In ping pong, we have enhanced motor functions, enhanced strategy functions and enhanced long-term memory functions,” explained Dr. Wendy Suzuki, professor of neuroscience and psychology at New York University. “By anticipating an opponent’s shot, a player uses the prefrontal cortex for strategic planning…The aerobic exercise from the physical activity of the game stimulates the hippocampus, the part of the brain that is responsible for allowing us to form and retain long-term facts and events…There’s a lot of strategy and the area that gets enhanced is the prefrontal cortex, critical not only in ping pong, but also in chess,” said Suzuki.
Daniel G. Amen, M.D. says his “favorite physical activity is table tennis, which also happens to be the world’s best brain sport. It is highly aerobic and gets both the upper and lower body moving in every which way — twisting, bending down low, reaching up high, and shuffling from side to side. Plus, it gives your brain one heckuva workout…The game is great for hand-eye coordination and reflexes…You have to follow through and execute those tactics successfully. All the while, you have to stay calm so you don’t get too nervous on game point. And you can’t dwell on that point you blew a few minutes ago or blow your top when you make a mistake. It is like aerobic chess.”
He goes on to say, “One of the things I love best about table tennis is that it involves very few brain injuries. In 1999, I played in the U.S. National Table Tennis Tournament with hundreds of other players, and there wasn’t a single brain injury. A fascinating brain imaging study from Japan found that table tennis helps balance your brain. The researchers examined a group of people before and after playing table tennis for a period of ten minutes. The ‘after’ images revealed increased activity in the prefrontal cortex, the thoughtful part of your brain, and the cerebellum.”
Daniel Amen believes that brain health is central to all health and success. “When your brain works right,” he says, “you work right; and when your brain is troubled you are much more likely to have trouble in your life.” His work is dedicated to helping people have better brains and better lives.
Dr. Amen is a physician, double board certified psychiatrist, television producer and nine-time New York Times bestselling author. He is the Founder and Medical Director of Amen Clinics in Newport Beach and San Francisco, California, Bellevue, Washington, Reston, Virginia, Atlanta and New York City.
So, I’m encouraging all you couch potatoes to not give up. There is a perfect exercise tailored just for you. When you discover it you’ll be glad you stayed on the search and so will your body and your brain.
—Justine Willis Toms