Why doctors say playing ping-pong could help manage Parkinson’s disease symptoms

When 67-year-old Roben Seltzer was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease three years ago, his symptoms were so bad he could barely get out of bed. He was treated with physical therapy and medication to manage symptoms like tremors, stiffness and slowness.

His doctor also offered him a surprising treatment option: ping-pong. 

“Ping-pong has clearly been shown to have a positive impact on the progression of the disease and in a way that the medication alone is not doing,” said Dr. Elana Clar, a neurologist at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey.

“While all forms of exercise are beneficial, the thing that makes ping-pong unique is that it incorporates a focus on balance, hand-eye coordination, and the rhythm or pace of reciprocal play,” Clar said. “So it really hits the trifecta of physical, cognitive and social activities.”

Clar and Elizabeth Kera, a neuropsychologist at Hackensack University Medical Center, co-founded the New Jersey chapter of Ping Pong Parkinson, a New York-based nonprofit organization that raises awareness about the benefits of playing ping-pong. The group has more than 200 chapters in 26 countries and holds classes where Parkinson’s patients can play.

The goal is to improve attention, movement, mood and social connection among people striving to outpace a progressive disease, which affects one in every 100 people age 60 and older. It is more common in men than in women.   

Kera said that when people with Parkinson’s disease are playing the game, areas of the brain that handle tasks like planning and problem-solving — usually impacted by the disease — are activated. 

Seltzer plays every Tuesday night in River Edge, New Jersey, with other Parkinson’s patients as well as volunteers. He said the benefits he sees from playing ping-pong last a couple of days. 

“When I start up, I’m a little stiff. My shots are a little bit off. My timing’s a little bit off and I’m a little bit frustrated. And then after about 15 or 20 minutes, suddenly things kick in,” Seltzer said. 

Ping Pong Parkinson holds an international competition that Seltzer said he hopes to be able to compete in next year.  

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