November 15, 2010 / 4:39 PM / 8 years ago

Table tennis: the addictive spin

NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - Table tennis bounces as effortlessly as its little white balls through all sorts of venues, from church basements to the Olympic Games to urban social clubs for the ultra cool.

Tenti Fermin of Argentina (R) plays against Brian Afanador of Puerto Rico during the men's U13 final match at the XI Latin-American table tennis Championships in Santo Domingo October 10, 2010. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

Experts say wherever you play, it’s fun, habit-forming, and the better you get at it, the fitter you can become.

“Table tennis has strong fitness component,” said Richard McAfee, author of Table Tennis: Steps to Success. “When you start recreationally there’s not a whole lot of movement and you can get into the game very easily.”

But McAfee, who has been a coach since 1980, added that when people learn strokes, techniques and footwork they can develop a high degree of fitness.

“Beginning players can’t keep the ball on the table, so we continuously feed them balls while increasing speed and movement,” he explained. “It’s both an aerobic and anaerobic workout.”

Ping pong is a trademark name originally owned by Parker Brothers, the people who owned Monopoly, according to McAfee.

“The name of the sport has always been table tennis, but we really don’t care which name is used,” he added.

If the name’s not crucial, the spin is.

“Spin is the defining element — spin and how to use it. The table is only nine by five feet so spin, the ability to curve the ball, allows us to control the ball and get it in the 80- to 90-m.p.h. range,” he explained.

According to the International Olympic Committee, ping pong is the world’s largest participation sport. It became an Olympic game in 1988.

“It’s always been immensely popular pastime in the United States at home, in churches, and for fun, said McAfee.

And now, he said, thanks to Academy Award-winning actress and ping pong entrepreneur Susan Sarandon, it’s becoming cool.

In 2009 Sarandon and partners opened Spin NYC, a huge table tennis social club which unites 16 Olympic-quality courts, decor by U.S. designer Todd Oldham, a full bar and a little rock and roll under one roof.

“We just dusted it off and repackaged it,” Spin co-owner Jonathan Bricklin said. “Ping pong is very confusing: it’s an Olympic sport that’s also a game you can play as a five year old. The difference is how you approach it.”

Bricklin thinks ping pong is a no-risk way to kick-start a fitness program.

“Ping pong is a great gateway exercise. There’s a 93 year-old woman who takes lessons here three times a week. She’s developed a nice touch with the ball. She can block, and she hits really aggressively.”

Pete McCall, an exercise physiologist with the American Council on Exercise, said for older players, the hand-eye coordination required can produce cognitive, as well as social, rewards.

“It’s also a fun way to warm up or cool down from a more challenging workout,” he said.

McCall also hails the addictive nature of the game.

“It’s easy to learn but challenging to be really good at,” he said. “So you develop a few skills, then you want more.”

Bricklin describes a Zen-like concentration that eclipses the mundane worries of the day.

“It makes you focus on the exact moment. You have to keep your eye on the ball,” he said. “And just hitting the ball is kind of soothing.”

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