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THE WORLD'S BEST BRAIN SPORT


By Daniel G. Amen, MD

My 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.

Also known as "ping-pong," the game is great for hand-eye coordination and reflexes (cerebellum and parietal lobes). You have to focus (prefrontal cortex) so you can track the ball through space (parietal lobes and occipital lobes), figure out spins (parietal lobes and occipital lobes), and plan shots and strategies (prefrontal cortex and cerebellum). Then you have to follow through and execute those tactics successfully (prefrontal cortex and cerebellum). All the while, you have to stay calm so you don't get too nervous on game point (basal ganglia). And you can't dwell on that point you blew a few minutes ago (anterior cingulated gyrus) or blow your top when you make a mistake (temporal lobes). It is like aerobic chess.

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.

Another reason why I'm such a fan of table tennis is because it is a sport the whole family can play. I was lucky enough to have a ping-pong table in my backyard when I was growing up, and I played a lot as a child with my siblings and my parents. My mother was a fierce competitor with lightning-fast reflexes, and she usually reigned as queen of the court. I always had such a great time playing that I never realized that I was "exercising" or improving my brain function. It was just fun.

Other great brain sports include dancing and tennis. Dancing is very aerobic and is especially good for your brain if you are learning new steps rather than just grooving to the music. That's why taking classes in ballroom, hip-hop, or jazz dancing where you have to memorize routines is ideal. Tennis, like table tennis, is a high-intensity activity that pumps up your brain power. The main difference is that traditional tennis is slower so your reflexes don't get as much of a workout as they do with table tennis.