Shedding Pounds with Ping-Pong

Grab a paddle, and aid your weight-loss rally.
Ping pong player

You might think of Ping-Pong as a leisure-time hobby played in dingy garages and billiard clubs — a paddle in one hand and a beer in the other. But it’s a high-energy sport (yes, that’s right, a sport) that’s played by hundreds of millions of serious athletes worldwide. Sure, Ping-Pong, or "table tennis" in competitive circles, is a fast-paced, fun game to play with your drinking buddies in their rec rooms. But it can also provide a boost to your weight-loss efforts while sharpening both your body and mind.

Naturally, table tennis is derived from tennis, which has been played in various forms since at least the 12th century by French and British aristocrats. In the late 1800s, several attempts were made to create an indoor version of the game. The spin-off game that became the most popular among the British dinner-party crowd was a tabletop analogue of tennis, played with cigar-box lids for paddles, golf balls or rounded wine-corks for balls, and books placed spine-up for a net. Eventually, more sophisticated drumlike paddles replaced the cigar-box lids, and celluloid and plastic balls replaced the wine corks.

So where does the name come from?

The distinctive sound made by the ball striking the stretched parchment of prior-generation paddles led to the game being branded "Ping-Pong," although "Whiff-Waff," "Gossima" and "Flim-Flam" were other names in use early on.

“Most beginner Ping-Pong players will burn between 200 and 350 calories per hour of play,” according to Lisa Feldermann, personal training program manager at Blink Fitness in New York. “Elite competitors add fancy footwork to their game,” says Feldermann, “which lets them burn up to 500 calories per match!” That sets Ping-Pong well above other common recreational pastimes like billiards or bowling, in terms of aerobic exercise.

“Ping-Pong is a total body sport,” Feldermann adds. “But one that uses a surprising amount of leg muscle.” The footwork involved in high-level play brings a lot of precision movement in the game. “The quads, calves and hip abductors are all hard at work letting players move side-to-side and front-to-back quickly.” Other muscle groups that are used during play are “forearms, obliques, abdominals, biceps, shoulders and triceps, as well as stabilizing muscles like the rhomboids and middle trapezius.”

Spicing up your workouts by including enjoyable recreational activities is one of the best ways to ensure weight-loss success. “I include fun games and challenges into training sessions for myself as well as my clients,” says Feldermann. “Having fun is one of the most important factors contributing to motivation to participate in physical activity.” Honestly, if you enjoy yourself this much while exercising, you might not even realize you’re exercising at all.

“Table tennis activates both the body and mind,” says Stefan Feth, the coach of the U.S. men’s national table-tennis team. He emphasizes the mental component of the game: “Due to the quickness of the sport, the mind needs to focus and watch actively when playing.”

The grips

shake hands paddle grip Of the different ways to grip the paddle, Feth recommends the “shake-hands” grip for those just starting out. This is where you grasp the handle of the paddle with all your fingers as if you were shaking someone’s hand. “This is the most played style and easiest to learn nowadays,” says Feth.
pen hold paddle grip Some prefer the “Chinese” or “penhold” grip, where you grasp the handle with two fingers, allowing you to hit both forehand and backhand shots with the same side of the paddle. This grip was popular for a while, especially among Asian players, but now is used less.

Fun Facts

  • Table tennis has been an Olympic sport since 1988.
  • In professional table-tennis volleys, the ball can reach speeds as high as 90 miles per hour.
  • Table tennis is the national sport of China.
  • Table tennis is the second most played sport in the world, behind soccer.
  • The first table-tennis competitions were held around the turn of the 20th century. It was also around this time that the game was first brought to Asia by colonial British troops, a seemingly insignificant event that would ultimately shape the course of the sport’s development in the succeeding century.

The gear
As for gear, basic table-tennis equipment is very affordable, but you can upgrade to progressively more sophisticated products as you improve. The market leader in table-tennis gear is Butterfly, and they have good recreational paddles for between $15 and $45. Once you get more serious, you can upgrade to the Butterfly Stefan Feth paddle, with Sriver rubber padding on both sides for maximum spin control. This and other professional-level paddles will set you back at least $115.

You certainly don’t need special shoes when just starting out, but if you’re looking to get competitive, a good pair of light athletic shoes with thin and tacky soles is what the professionals use.

If you take a shine to the sport and want a table of your own, good recreational tables can be found for roughly $475. Competition-level tables can run up to $2,000 and higher. Remember, you don’t have to start with the very best equipment; it’s more important to just get out there and play.

Table tennis is not just a workout for the body; it can also be quite an exercise for your brain. “Physically, table tennis requires very quick reflexes and hand-eye coordination,” says Coach Feth, “and mentally, the sport requires players to have the ability to think and strategize in a very short amount of time.”

If you don’t happen to have table-tennis-playing friends, you can check out the website of USA Table Tennis for listings of clubs and organizations in your area.

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