There is something exceptional about table tennis
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ITTF’s Parkinson’s World Table Tennis Championships shines light on the social and health benefits of playing table tennis for people with Parkinson’s.

The ITTF Taking Parkinson’s World Table Tennis Championships will take place in Berlin from September 9 to 11. In this guest article, Professor Lars Bo Kaspersen from Copenhagen Business School, also a Parkinson's warrior, shares with us how the Danish society promotes a healthier lifestyle through table tennis among an older demographic.

A new national health policy agenda is emerging for the developed countries, and table tennis will likely become a big part of the health promotion revolution in the coming two to three decades.

Developed countries are struggling with a major ageing problem. The fastest-growing group of people in almost every single industrialised country comprises those above the age of 70. Much research is being done to prolong human life, including research into better food and nutrition, medicine, and health care systems, which has contributed to a demography with more people living longer. People have been given a long and healthy life, and although many enjoy good health, more will at some point face ordinary ageing problems or diseases and defects. These common ageing processes are part of life. But a lot of science seems to suggest that we can help postpone, at least parts of, the ageing process, so we can enjoy more years without too many problems.  

Is that even possible? Yes, it is quite simple, and we already know it. You must move! Sports, dancing, walking and cycling all help. But there is something special about table tennis.

Table tennis is a cheap sport compared to many others. And it does not require much space. A table tennis table can be placed almost anywhere! In addition, the game is relatively easy to learn, and you rarely get seriously injured. Unlike several other sports, it can be practised throughout your whole life into very old age. Table tennis is, therefore, the ideal sport for older people.

This is supported by the existing, although not very extensive, research from Australia, USA and Canada. Based on all the results and observations, it is stated that table tennis stimulates blood circulation, improves physical fitness, enhances hand-eye coordination, and gently stimulates several areas of the brain. This knowledge has resulted in table tennis in Denmark, among other countries, gaining an explosive increase in participation in the age group from 60 years and up.

About three years ago, some enterprising people associated with the Danish Table Tennis Association and the Danish Gymnastics and Sports Associations (DGI) took the initiative to start up new clubs all over Denmark to offer seniors above the age of 60 table tennis activities. The initiative, which has been named “The 60+ Movement” is now very popular. Approximately 4,000 people seniors meet 1-5 times a week to play. Many practice in the morning because at that time the leisure centres, sports clubs and halls, and private facilities are empty, since most kids play in the afternoon and adults play in the evenings.

The number of clubs and associations that have a section for 60+ is also growing very quickly. In a week in early September, clubs and associations all over Denmark open their doors to new members. During this week, they can pop in and try the game free of charge. More experienced members show the newcomers how to play, give them some exercises, or teach them the rules of the game.

More and more seniors now play table tennis. Several participants expressed being very satisfied playing the sport. Most of them had never played before, but picked up the basics very quickly. Moreover, they all claimed that table tennis is great fun! The fitness centre might be efficient but it is far from amusing; rather, it can be deadly boring.

Table tennis as a method to a better and more enjoyable old age is supported by research showing that it is extremely beneficial in treating neurological disorders such as Parkinson's, Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. This brings me back into the story again. At a relatively young age, in my late 40s, I was diagnosed with Parkinson's, a neurological disorder in which the brain's ability to produce dopamine is impaired. Symptoms of the disease include shaking, muscle stiffness, balance problems, difficulties with walking and speech, etc.

Neurologists and physiotherapists repeatedly stressed that medication could help me somewhat, but the crucial thing for my quality of life and mobility was continuous physical exercise. I have always loved sports, so I was motivated to increase my training. However, when you have to do exercises for at least an hour a day, it can be boring, in the long, run to stick to the gym or jogging. Therefore, I returned to table tennis, and I have been practising for a few years. It is fun and has a big effect, especially on my balance. I am convinced that the part of the research that claims that table tennis has some special qualities to Parkinson's Disease is right. For table tennis is something very special.

I am also convinced that the recognition of the special qualities of table tennis concerning ageing processes and the many examples of improvements in the daily lives of people with neurological disorders will lead to a quiet revolution in the prevention and treatment of such problems in the Danish population. We have the chance to become a prime mover in the fight against ageing and serious diseases. Preventive health care work is vital, and here it is important to encourage as many people as possible to play table tennis regularly. This means that, in the future, we must include sport in our health care strategies against ageing.

This requires a new and different health policy strategy. It necessitates close interaction between voluntary associations, foundations, private actors, companies and the public sector, to develop services for many different groups in society. We need more table tennis tables everywhere – in shopping centres, nursing homes, municipal activity centres, schools and workplaces. Table tennis clubs should be able to offer instruction and training of coaches, educators and nursing staff. This is a new phase in the development of the welfare state: the experimental welfare state, where flexibility and cooperation between public and private employees and professionals and volunteers is the characteristic feature.

In Denmark, the quiet revolution has already started. Table tennis clubs in the country are already in the process of developing services for the Danish population and are collaborating with municipalities, voluntary associations, and foundations. The private philanthropic foundation TrygFonden has recently made a large donation to Table Tennis Denmark which, with support from the Parkinson's Association, will develop useful table tennis activities for Parkinson's patients. The revolution has begun!

I sincerely hope that within the next two or three years we will see the 60+ movement in Denmark become a global phenomenon supported by ITTF, ETTU, and all national table tennis and sports federations, including medical and health organisations. For table tennis is something special!

Lars Bo Kaspersen is a Professor of Politics at Copenhagen Business School, a table tennis enthusiast and diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease.