Navin Kumar, who has a mechanical heart and Parkinson's, practices at the Maryland Table Tennis Center Nov. 25, 2014 in Gaithersburg. He will represent Maryland at the U.S. National table tennis Championships in December. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Maybe you played ping-pong as a kid because your parents set up a table in the basement. Maybe you played in high school because you were hanging out with friends at the rec center. And maybe later, you played that other version of pong that requires a table and a ball but no paddles because, you know, you were in college.

You may well have drifted away from the sport since then, but you know what? Your younger self was on to something. Table tennis is an effective — and fun — way to work up a sweat. Your older self might want to try it if you’re looking for a vigorous workout with very little risk of injury. And you might even benefit from the positive effects the sport is widely credited with having on brain functions.

Then there’s Navin Kumar, a 40-year-old government worker who told me, “I’m playing table tennis really for my survival.”

Kumar has gotten back into the sport in a big way recently, despite some pretty major health challenges. The Gaithersburg resident was born with a congenital heart condition and he has undergone five open-heart surgeries, two of them when he was just 3 years old. Now his heart is partially mechanical, with valves made from carbon fiber, and he uses a pacemaker.

On a Caribbean cruise a few years ago, Kumar won a ping-pong tournament (most aficionados refer to it as table tennis, but the more informal term is still acceptable), and he was reminded of how much he had enjoyed the sport as a youngster, even competing in an officially sanctioned event in 1986. He started coming to the Maryland Table Tennis Center in Gaithersburg but then had to take some time off because of some more heart-related issues, as well as the birth of a child.

Navin Kumar, who has a mechanical heart and Parkinson's, poses for a photograph at the Maryland Table Tennis Center Nov. 25, 2014 in Gaithersburg. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Since July, Kumar has been back at MDTTC with a vengeance, saying that, “in fact, now I’m playing better because, from a heart standpoint, I’ve had all the open-heart surgeries I need — knock on wood.”

When he first got back into table tennis, Kumar was looking for an energetic but non-contact activity, because of “the mechanical stuff inside” as well as the fact that he takes anticoagulant medicine. He has gotten his cardio level way up, all right, plus some side effects that are proving very helpful in battling an even more pressing medical issue.

About a year and a half ago, Kumar was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. He might have gotten that diagnosis sooner, but the onset of symptoms was initally hard to distinguish from the essential tremor (ET) disorder he’d long had.

ET affects the left side of Kumar’s body, while Parkinson’s manifests itself on his right, the side he uses to hold his paddle. During a training session, I saw Kumar ask his coach if he could switch to some drills on the backhand side, because hitting forehands had become temporarily difficult.

Still, his ability to play fluidly “was much worse three months ago,” Kumar told me.

“With the Parkinson’s, I’m getting the added benefit of less muscle stiffness, some improvement in the tremors, as well,” Kumar added. “I’m always going to have the tremors, but at least this helps keep my hands more relaxed.”

Not only that, but in the most recent visit to his neurologist, Kumar showed huge improvement on tests of his motor skills, reflexes and memory.

Table tennis has been linked to improved cognitive function at least as far back as 1992, when Japanese researchers ran tests on frequent players. Their conclusion: “It is evident from this study that table tennis players preserve far better mental ability even in the older age compared with non-players.”

Given a small ball traveling short distances at high speed, players must not only track its movements carefully with their eyes but instantly make strategic decisions and react quickly with their bodies.

“Study after study shows how it helps the brain, it delays the onset of Alzheimer’s,” says Larry Hodges, Kumar’s coach and a co-founder of MDTTC. As for the rest of the body, “you have to move so fast. In a fast rally, you do incredible training. Your legs have to be in great shape, and if you have extra weight, you can’t move.”

Over at Northern Virginia Table Tennis Center in Chantilly, head coach Zhongxing Lu pointed out (through his daughter, who translated his Chinese) still more selling points, including table tennis’s ability to improve vision and reflexes, the unlikelihood of serious injury and the almost unlimited age range. His youngest member is 6; his oldest is 82.

Table tennis is certainly a sport one can play well into one’s senior years, if my visit to the Northern Virginia Table Tennis Club in Arlington was any indication. There, I spoke to three members of the club’s executive board, two of whom were a spry 71, with the third checking in at an even sprier (one presumes) 70.

“Aside from the physical movement, the hand-eye coordination that you develop here is wonderful,” Fred Siskind of McLean (the 70-year-old) told me. “I thought I would have lost the hand-eye quickness [after many years not playing the sport], and I’m sure I’m not the way I was in my 20s, but I’ve been surprised. . . . The quickness is still there.”

Tom Norwood, also from McLean, added, “This is how I fight off my diabetes. It’s very good exercise. . . . If it weren’t for this, I’d be running on a treadmill somewhere.”

The Arlington club is based out of Madison Community Center, and it has been around since the early 1990s. MDTTC, where Kumar plays, also dates back that far, but the similarities quickly begin to drop off.

Where the Arlington club has an informal atmosphere, with four tables in separate rooms (which used to be classrooms, complete with blackboards, during the building’s previous life as a school), the Maryland center is a state-of-the-art operation, the largest of its kind in the area and, according to Hodges, the oldest in the country.

“As of 2007, there were only eight full-time training centers in the United States,” Hodges said. “When we opened in 1992, we were the first. . . . Now there are 76 — we’ve been keeping track.”

At least five full-time centers have sprung up in the Washington area in the past few years, a clear indication that table tennis is on the rise in these parts. Hodges described Maryland as “one of the hotbeds for table tennis,” and MDTTC has long been home to some of the finest table tennis players in the United States, including many national team members.

Kumar is good at table tennis, but he knows he can become much better, and he is excited about his prospects of getting there. In the short term, he is very excited about competing at the national championships in Las Vegas this month.

Of course, Kumar also has some other major goals in mind.

“I look at my two girls, and I want to be around them forever. I don’t want this Parkinson’s to have its way with me, or even my heart. So I play for my survival.”

Where to play

Many county recreation centers also have tables available, some for a small fee. In the District, Comet Ping Ping also features several tables in the back of a pizza restaurant.

Full-time table tennis centers in the area include:

● Maryland TTC in Gaithersburg (www.mdttc.com)

● Washington TTC in Gaithersburg (www.washingtonttc.com)

● Club JOOLA in Rockville (www.clubjoola.com)

● Howard County TTC in Columbia (www.hctt-md.com)

● Northern Virginia TTC in Chantilly (www.novattc.com)

Set to open later in December:

● Smash TT in Sterling (www.smashtt.com)

● Washington DC TTC in the District (www.wdctt.com)

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