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.

Pingpong and Parkinson's

Peter D. Kramer

The Journal News

The first International Table Tennis Federation Foundation World Parkinson's Table Tennis Championship takes place Oct. 11 to 13 at Will Shortz’s Westchester Table Tennis Center

Singer-songwriter Nenad Bach is one of the masterminds of this weekend, the Pied Piper of Ping Pong Parkinson, if you’ll permit all that alliteration.

Bach, who traded Croatia for Croton, surrendered his guitar to Parkinson’s years ago, the disease sapping him of the ability to play with syncopation.

Then he took up ping pong and, within six months, he says, the practice of moving from side to side, gliding his paddle through the air to meet a spinning ball had a remarkable effect: It gave him back his guitar. 

“Either I’m making new neurons, or rewiring old ones,” he says. “Something is happening.”

Last month, he went into the studio and recorded a catchy song, “I Love Ping Pong,” the video of which includes plenty of friends from his weekly Wednesday night Ping Pong Parkinson’s sessions.

'Opening a new box'

“My hope is that the world should start to pay attention to the 10 million people who couldn't perform or compete in any sport,” Bach says. “People with Parkinson’s couldn't compete in any sport because there was no classification. So we are opening a new box here. Hopefully, there’s a nice present inside, but if it’s Pandora, we’re ready to open that one, as well.”

Role models

The guest list includes Bach’s countryman, Zoran Primorac, a two-time World Cup winner and one of only three table tennis players to have competed at seven Olympic Games.

In April 2018, Primorac introduced Bach to the ITTF president and CEO at the World Championships in Sweden.

Leandro Olvech, director of the ITTF Foundation, the social-responsibility arm of the international body, explains: “We were amazed at his story. We were supposed to have a 15-minute meeting with him and we spoke for one hour, about life and our sport.”

Bach, who speaks softly in a charming Croatian accent, has plenty to say, on a range of topics. His blue eyeglasses are etched with the name of one of his pet projects: "World Peace in One Hour." (His website is

Olvech says the meeting sparked an idea.

“Why don't we organize something to spread the news, so that people with Parkinson's worldwide they know that they could, if they played, improve their life quality?” he says.

As the ITTF promoted the event, they learned there were Ping Pong Parkinson’s groups in Sweden. And Germany. And Japan. Players from each of those countries will be in Pleasantville this weekend.

Olvech says the outcomes of this weekend’s matches are unimportant.

“It doesn't matter who becomes world champion for us,” he says. “To them, the competitors, it matters, but not for us. These are role models to show people that table tennis can improve your life.”

'Gotta Keep Moving'

One of those role models is Pleasantville’s Margie Alley, who leads stretching warm-up exercises before the Wednesday night sessions.

At Wednesday’s session, Alley stares across the net at Alan Abt, of Bedford. Both are a study in focus and physics, flicking their wrists to send the nearly weightless ball spinning at top speed and impossible angles.

The importance of the weekend is not lost on Alley.

“It means the world of Parkinson's pingpong players have an opportunity to be all together as a community in a place where pingpong is celebrated,” she says.

Like Alley, Abt — who plays like a human backboard, returning shots with an economy of movement — has also been a tennis player. They agree that pingpong is harder, requiring quickness and rapid-fire decisions.

“I have really good reflexes and reactions,” she says. “That’s something I was born with and I haven't lost it with Parkinson's.”

Both say that their Wednesdays, and other exercise, are keeping the Parkinson’s at bay.

Says Alley: “It's a way for me to work out and keep my body and brain active. I think it's therapeutic. And I know that with Parkinson's, if you can, you have to exercise every day. I’m committed to that.”

Abt says the sport builds eye-hand coordination and balance. 

“It's not just good for people with Parkinson's. There's all kinds of evidence that it's good for people with learning disabilities and attention deficit disorder," he says. 

“It's good for the brain because in table tennis you need to adjust for so many things at once: the speed, the angle of the ball coming in, the spin. And it happens so quickly. I'm sure that the brains of table tennis players are different than the average person.”

A social good

Art Dubow, of Stamford, Connecticut, a retired psychologist who helped found Ping Pong Parkinson, says there's science at work behind the tok-tok-tok of the bouncing balls on a sea of tables in Pleasantville. 

“The research, especially within the last 10 years, has proven that the brain can regenerate to some extent and they call that neuroplasticity,” Dubow says.

"They get better on a lot of fronts. It's not just motor functioning. I don't mean the stiffness and the slowness and the tremors. It's not just that. They get better by being more alert. They're able to hold attention. They focus better. There's a lot of cognitive improvement.”

When he and Bach started the group nearly three years ago, Dubow didn’t expect it to be such a social support.

“For Parkinson's patients that's especially important because, if you think about it, a lot of these people they stay alone. With their illness, they don't get out. But if they're forced to get out that's a good thing.

“Pingpong has a singular virtue in that it is complex neurology. There's a lot involved. That's the good thing, because if it's not challenging, then it's worthless.”

Each Wednesday session starts with Parkinson's-specific stretching exercises, then moves on to pingpong tips, then to matches. There's also a juggling segment. (Dubow is a fan of juggling as a neuron builder.) It ends in a song, which helps Parkinson's patients, whose voices tend to soften as the disease takes hold.

Dubow says pingpong has one more major thing going for it.

“If the exercise is not fun they're not going to do it, and that's one of the values of pingpong. It's fun. So if they come here because they're going to have fun and get the exercise at the same time, then that's a real plus.”

Dave Hill, who lives in Pleasantville, is a tournament organizer, one of dozens of volunteers who keep Ping Pong Parkinson’s going in Pleasantville.

“The social aspect of it is great,” he says. “I've just seen a lot of people get happier in the two years I've been doing it. You immediately hear the room get happy.”

The mission of Ping Pong Parkinson is stated clearly on its website,

To help anyone with Parkinson’s disease through pingpong (primarily) – and to have fun while doing it.