First, he took on my dad, writes Channel 4 News Online Producer Jennifer Rigby.

"Let's put money on it," he said. My dad was a little reluctant. While his opponent, Ken Leighton, seemed pretty confident in his own table tennis abilities, dad was a bit less convinced - not least because Ken is 85 years old.

This turned out to be a fairly serious under-estimation of Ken's ping pong skills. Ken thrashed him. Then, a few months later, I played Ken. He thrashed me too.

I reminded him of these games recently.

Let's put money on it.The challenge from 85-year-old table tennis player, Ken Leighton, to his much younger opponent.

"I think your dad thought he wasn't going to get a game... He went home with his tail between his legs," said Ken, laughing. "It's happened before."

Ken started playing table tennis when he was in the army, in 1945. That was 68 years ago.

"I had a decent bat which I still use today," he said. "It's got a mark on the back where my fingers have been - it's taken the rubber off."

Ken plays a singles game in his early twenties (Ken Leighton)

Ping pong for all ages 

Ken, who lives in Lancashire, is one of a host of older people who are finding that table tennis is a game for all ages. Last year, a documentary made by Britdoc/Banyak Films called Ping Pong followed eight players on their way to the over-80s world table tennis championships in China.

The 3,500 competitors may be elderly, but they are fierce on the table - and off it.

"This old girl, I don't care how good she is. I should get her. She can't move," says one of the female players, talking about the oldest player in the 2010 tournament: 101-year-old Dorothy DeLow, from Australia.

I was playing table tennis, and I think that saved me.101-year-old Dorothy DeLow, a competitor in the over-80s table tennis world championships

But the film has a serious side to it as well. Dorothy tells the filmmakers: "I lost my husband and my daughter and I was playing table tennis, and I think that saved me."

Another competitor, Inge Herman, who is 90 in the film, stopped eating and drinking when her husband died 15 years ago, and became "confused". Then she discovered table tennis - and is shown in the film smashing her opponents, clearly together, and seemingly not at all "confused".

Health benefits 

Ken would agree that table tennis has helped keep him fit. He recently had to have an operation, which doctors said they would not have undertaken on a man of his age if he wasn't so healthy.

A recent photo of Ken playing table tennis (Ken Leighton)

"Without a shadow of a doubt [it has helped me]. The doctor said if I hadn't been fit, they wouldn't have done the operation. And it's absolutely helped me mentally as well. I think it's great," he said.

Now scientists who have seen the Ping Pong film want to test whether there is any scientific basis behind the improvements some of the characters showed after playing table tennis. At the same time, the filmmakers are taking the film and "ping pong kits" to care homes and community centres around the country to try and encourage older people to play - both for the physical and mental benefits.

Obviously, keeping fit is as good for older people as it is for anyone. But in particular, scientists have shown that exercise is very good at preventing dementia and helping with the symptoms of the disease. But is table tennis any better at this than other sports? Dr Matthew Kempton from the Institute of Psychiatry at King's College London wants to find out.

"You see this film, and you're quite inspired by some of the characters there and some of the changes in their symptoms and the improvement, and what we really want to do now is the science. In the film, it's more anecdotal evidence, what we want to do now is test the science," he told Channel 4 News.

The power of ping pong 

He said table tennis has the potential to be helpful for older people with dementia in particular because it combines physical activity with spatial skills, cognition and keeping social.

"Previous research has shown that exercise has actually increased the volume of an area in the brain called the hippocampus," he explained.

"This area is very important in dementia, especially in Alzheimer's disease. It is important in the formation of new memories, and this area gets smaller in people with Alzheimer's. So what we'd be interested in looking at is, while people are playing these table tennis games, or are engaged in more activity, does this area of the brain actually increase in volume? Is there more blood flow and so on, in the hippocampus?"

Because of your age, they think you're a pushover. They said: 'You'll be our secret weapon.'Ken Leighton

The team are trying to get funding now to do the work, but in the meantime experts say that it's part of a wider attempt to encourage older people to keep active, particularly to prevent or help with conditions like Alzheimer's.

George McNamara from the Alzheimer's Society told Channel 4 News: "Every person with dementia is different, and what might be of interest to one person might be table tennis, it might be swimming, it might be talking about the past sporting glories of their football club. But one of the things we do know is that people can live well with dementia."

And Ken? He's not playing right now because of his illness, but he hopes to be back. Just before he got ill, a local team asked him to play for them.

"Because of your age, they think you're a pushover. They said 'you'll be our secret weapon,'" he said.

But while Ken is still hoping to keep his talents under wraps, it's another story for the table tennis campaigners.

If their message gets across in the care homes around the country, they hope potential health benefits of table tennis for older people will not be kept secret for long.

Ping Pong Fitness

Our bodies were made to move:  Young – Middle Aged – Old.    Originally posted in 2011 
The trick is to find out what movement suits whom, where, when and how. For a lot of us: high diving, wrestling, fencing, football, skating, skiing, boxing, are somewhat out of reach, sometimes, even tennis. However, batting a small, white ball across a green table and net; ping pong, or, in its highest form, table tennis, is not… All sports, obviously, involve the mind as well as the body, and played well, the mind is a strong component of the game. After you have hit the ball you may be able to pick up hints, providing you are watching your opponent as well as the ball, as to their next move by reading his or her body language. Ping pong can be a mild, pleasant hand and eye co- ordination with concomitant mild, aerobic, cardiac affects or, table tennis at its best, as one of the fastest sports extant, the arm, hand and eye coordination. with reflexes so swift that the ball can be barely seen, not to speak of the workout involved. In other words, there is room for all gradation of players. The game is a tactical one. The comparative proximity of the opponent makes the reading of the body language easier, than let us say, tennis, and therefore the decision to attack or defend, the observation of the weakness or strength of the opponent becomes more accessible. The satisfaction of slamming the ball at your opponent, and, therefore willy nilly releasing a lot of aggression (and pent up hostility) can be enormous, along with the knowledge that you cannot really harm them with a little celluloid ball. By the same token, playing defensively can add to the ego by being able to save oneself. In other words, we have aggression without guilt and defense with pride. For example: a shy teenager who would rather veer away from being observed by onlookers doing anything remotely solo, can become so involved in the game that without particular awareness, the body begins to move gracefully in the effort to reach the ball, even sexuality may express itself, and without planning it the teenager will have an increase in self-confidence despite performing in front of spectators. Again, it can become a good prescription for alleviating social handicaps, and, as an added bonus, greatly increased dexterity. One gentleman I know plays table tennis four times a week. He stated that the stresses he experiences in his home are so great that playing obviates his need for prescription drugs to counteract his attacks of depression.
In today’s world quick reflexes are very important since we do not know from where an unpleasant or mortal blow may surprise us. The cardiac benefits, of course, have been mentioned. The satisfaction of playing well and winning, offset by the possibility of losing but living to play another day, and learning more, reflect a miniaturized emotion of life itself. The rhythm of the sound of a good volley is a soothing and satisfying accomplishment for both players. In time the reflexes become automatic, and in the learning process the body takes over and, hopefully, brain and body work smoothly as one. After all, is not that one of our goals in life? Because of the swiftness of the game (due to the lightness of the ball and the strength of the hits) total concentration is involved. The eye must be on the ball and the opponent at all times. Serves, spinning balls and chopping motions often involve an almost pre-cognitive stance thereby obviating a lot of troublesome worries, sending them, for the while, into oblivion. We cannot ask for more from a sport.


Sally Deng Ping-Pong as the Fountain of Youth

CreditSally Deng

I returned home the other night exhausted, quadriceps aching, twinges in my foot, salty with sweat. My husband asked me how my evening was.
Glorious, I told him.
I had spent 90 minutes in a gym crammed with 10 Ping-Pong tables and assorted players, all coaxing and smacking a little ball over the net. By 9 p.m., I was exhilarated, depleted, triumphant. I had beaten two young men half my age and lost battles against worthy opponents. To a casual observer, the night was unremarkable. To me, it was a miracle.
I had taken up Ping-Pong during college, and in my 30s dove in more deeply, climbing the long stairway up to a table tennis center in Westfield, N.J., where I watched Olympic hopefuls and took lessons. Arthroscopy for torn knee cartilage soon sidelined me. Shortly afterward, a distracted driver made an illegal turn at a pedestrian crossing and drove directly into my bum knee.
Joint replacements are a poor bet for 30-somethings. The surgeon did his best to repair my crushed knee, inserted a titanium screw, recommended I stay slim, advised against afternoons of power shopping, and told me never to jog or run again.
Three months in a cast left my atrophied foot floppy and useless. Standing was excruciating. I hunted for shoes that could cushion my knee and set my sights on walking and climbing stairs again. Years later, I tried to play Ping-Pong and limped for a week. I put the game out of my mind.
When I was 53, a new challenge arrived. A dimple in my right breast proved malignant, so I underwent lumpectomy, followed by chemotherapy and radiation. By treatment’s end, clothing felt intolerable, and a stroll around the block winded me. My old knee injury hurt anew; flesh around the scar felt fragile as old rubber bands.
But I wanted to start fresh. I quit eating barbecue, shunned dairy, embraced kale. I attended therapy and a support group. At a $450 course in mindfulness-based stress reduction, I learned to befriend painful stretches and breathe new life into atrophied muscles without injuring myself.
One day my bad leg was working slightly better. The knee hadn’t been oppressively swollen in a while. I felt a flicker of hope.
Could Ping-Pong be feasible for me, now — in my condition, at my age?
Ping-Pong, or table tennis as it is officially known, is one of the fastest racket sports, requiring muscular and cardiorespiratory endurance. Players need nimble footwork and upper body flexibility to return balls that can fly over 60 miles per hour, demanding faster response times than tennis or badminton. While energy expenditure tables list the sport as requiring four METS of energy, about the same as archery or bowling, skilled players can peak at 11.7 METs during a match, said Alessandro Moura Zagatto, a sports physiologist and researcher at São Paulo State University in Brazil. That’s a workout comparable to intense racquetball or moderate rowing.
Ping-Pong’s unique visual and spatial demands, strategy requirements and vigor may even offer benefits for the brain. A study of 164 Korean women age 60 and older showed that table tennis improved cognitive function more than dancing, walking, gymnastics or resistance training. Other research suggests Ping-Pong may ease attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.
“The great thing about our sport is it can be played by anyone,” said Jimmy Butler, a four-time national USA Table Tennis Association champion who overcame a debilitating muscle condition in his 20s and 30s to reclaim the title at age 44. “I see 90-year-olds and 10-year-olds.”
Four years after completing radiation therapy, I set out to make my own Ping-Pong dream a reality. First requirement: clothing that didn’t irritate hypersensitive skin. Silk shell and organic cotton sports bra, check. Second requirement: footwear that didn’t accidentally torque a damaged knee. White bowling shoes, check.
My performance goals were realistic: Just be good enough that other players were willing to rally with me. No diving for crazy shots. Remember how to sweat.
I arrived at my local table tennis club cautiously, a breathtakingly out-of-shape woman in a sea of men, some in their 20s, a handful over 80. A man with a kind face invited me to hit with him. After 20 minutes I wilted, but went home happy. My knee didn’t implode.
I returned the following week, hit balls, lost matches. I fumbled with scorekeeping, but who cared about points? Just by playing I felt like a winner.
It soon became obvious that I needed to remember mindfulness while at the table. I got too easily distracted by shouts from my opponent or stray balls flying wildly from other tables. I had to stay focused on the little ball. Keep alert to spin. Don’t rush the attack.
Months passed, and almost imperceptibly, my stamina improved. Opponents started to compliment my shots. I won a game. I assumed it was a fluke. Then it happened again.
These days, slamming aces feels wonderful. I keep a water bottle nearby as sweat rolls off me. I stop when tired and praise my flimsy knee for its good work.
Some nights I play so joyfully, I can almost believe this sport is the fountain of youth.