- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 22, 2002

If you never thought of table tennis as a he-man (or she-woman) sport requiring plenty of stamina and muscle power, take a look at the impressive physical form of champion player Morris Jackson.This isn't to say one can measure the value of a sport by a person's size and shape. Nevertheless, some unexpected health benefits can accrue from low-impact activities such as table tennis and bowling sports not often associated in the public's mind with a fitness regimen.

Mr. Jackson, 51, is director of community relations in American University's Office of Development. When he's not on the job, he's likely to be found lifting weights or working out on the treadmill in a gym or engaging in a fast-moving table-tennis game at the Maryland Table Tennis Center in Gaithersburg . He is ranked by the U.S. Table Tennis Association as one of the top 100 players in the country for men older than 40.

Another asset helping his game is the outstanding progress of his son Marcus, 10, a fourth-grader at St. Ann's Academy in the District, who is ranked No. 1 in the United States for boys under age 12. NBC-TV's "Tonight" show is considering putting this young champ on the screen, but even more impressive, his coaches at the center are grooming him for the 2008 Summer Olympics.

"I live in the gym," Mr. Jackson says recognition that his sport of choice makes high demands on his body. He needs the extra workouts to be able to compete with players such as his son, he says, only half-jokingly.

"He is keeping me in shape," Mr. Jackson says with a laugh as he looks proudly at the diminutive frame of his offspring. Marcus is a mere 5 feet tall and 67 pounds; his father stands 6-foot-1 and weighs a constant 190 pounds. "He has better technique," Mr. Jackson says of his son, whom he monitors carefully.

In a sport dominated by Asians, it's unusual to find a black American father and son at such levels. Mr. Jackson, who played basketball as a youth but says he finds table tennis more challenging mentally, has become used to remarks comparing him and Marcus to the dynamic Williams family that dominates the tennis courts.

"Table tennis is one of few activities you can play at any age and one of few sports where children can compete against adults," Mr. Jackson says. "So many old players are in tremendous shape, and none look their age."

People initially attracted to the game by its demand for agility and its fast pace in the hands of experts, the tiny plastic ball weighing no more than a piece of paper can reach speeds of 100 miles per hour across the net find out later about its health benefits.

Larry Hodges, who is editor of USA Table Tennis Magazine and coaches juniors at the center, can't resist mentioning that at the Olympic training center in Colorado Springs, Colo., among all the resident Olympians it was the table tennis players who had the lowest percentage of fat on their bodies, excepting long-distance runners.

"At the higher levels, it is like paying regular tennis," Mr. Hodges says. "The more you play, the more you improve."

Table tennis players get plenty of work "running" in place and executing split-second moves with their feet and playing hand. Stomach and back muscles have to be strong because the body is bent slightly forward in play. (The second arm usually the left is kept in position close to the chest for better body balance.)

Stress shouldn't interfere with a good game, Mr. Jackson says, adding that he has never pressured his son to excel, on grounds that the desire to play should come from Marcus alone. "I don't stress winning and losing. I want him to stay relaxed. That goes along with employing good strategy."

Keeping the body relaxed at the same time one is concentrating so intensely "carries over into everyday life," he says.

The table tennis regimen influences their food choices, although father and son have different diets. Mr. Jackson has a fruit-and-protein shake with orange juice first thing in the morning and then, after the gym, he consumes a Lean Body bar high in protein. Lunch is a salad or chicken and lots of vegetables plus pasta or rice. On arrival home at night, he eats a sandwich and sits down later with his family for a meal "with no restrictions." (His wife, Janice, who doesn't compete, prepares the meal which Mr. Jackson calls his "second dinner of the day" at their home in Riverdale. Marcus goes in for lots of carbohydrates and vegetables and, by preference, eats no candy and almost no beef.

Relaxation alternating with short periods of intense concentration also describes bowling at its best. Health effects from bowling and table tennis naturally differ, owing to the different nature of the two sports.

Bowling, which isn't yet an Olympic game, traditionally is more fun and family-minded, a social activity involving as much sitting as standing, because players may throw only a limited number of balls per frame. (A standard tenpin bowling game consists of 10 frames, with each bowler handling a ball only twice per frame.)

Yet denizens who frequent the lanes report much-improved muscle tone in their throwing arms. Not surprisingly, the biceps of professional bowlers are much larger than normal. Bowling balls, which generally are made of hard rubber, can weigh between 6 and 16 pounds.

Mark Lander, an exercise physiologist who is director of fitness for the Sport & Health Clubs Inc. in the Washington area, calls bowling "one of the top three sports enjoyed by the public at large." (World Book Encyclopedia says more Americans compete in bowling than in any other sport.)

"It does have the potential to improve a person's cardiovascular system," Mr. Lander says, "but that probably is not its prime benefit because it isn't done on any sustained, continuous basis." Bowlers perform in short breaks.

"The one benefit you may find comes from the movements," Mr. Lander says. "The extension of legs and arms and throwing out the ball enhances flexibility and a range of motion. When you let the ball go, one is squat and slightly bent, so the muscular skeleton is affected. The ball has weight, but that affects only one side of the body. Over time, however, you can develop strength in your arm and legs, like a tennis player whose racket arm always is larger. Plus, it helps improve eye-hand coordination."

Form is crucial for the ball to make its mark against pins some 60 feet away the normal length of a lane. "A certain level of technique and ability is involved in this," Mr. Lander says, which is something of an understatement.

Most bowlers use a four-step or five-step delivery, taking a relaxed stance at the starting point and holding the ball just above the waist. The follow-through motion is a graceful one, comparable to an athlete's in the shot put. The downswing requires focus to ensure that delivery is on target. Knees have to be strong enough to sustain the motion. Because the pins fall in a different pattern after every hit, a bowler must use a different approach and slightly different movements each time.

Drop by the AMF College Park Lanes at 9021 Baltimore Blvd. on Route 1 any weekday morning, and you will find a number of league players, mostly seniors, enjoying their ritual games of duckpins. (Duckpins are considerably shorter pins with a wider diameter; the balls are smaller and lighter in weight as well, and the bowler throws three times per turn rather than two.) They come for companionship and leave with the satisfaction of having exercised just enough.

"I'm 84 and have been bowling for 50 years," says Marie Fink, who plays regularly with the Chestnut Hill Ladies League every Monday. She wears bowling-pin earrings as proof of her dedication to the sport and its camaraderie. The exercise is just enough to keep her in condition. "It keeps me limber. That's what the doctor told me," she says.

To keep the arthritis in her knees at bay, she prepares for each session by rubbing pain-relieving cream on them. Observing her characteristic "wind-up" motions leaves no doubt that she approaches the sport with vigor. The club, led by secretary Ann Ladd, 64, is a spirited bunch even if Mrs. Ladd admits that she aches each time she begins play. (Members' ages range from 34 to 84.)

One of the more senior members confessed recently that she was going into surgery soon because she had twisted her ankle doing an especially energetic maneuver while handling the ball.

"It's very hard to be consistent in this game," says Mrs. Ladd, a club officer for 26 years.

Bowling for exercise isn't only for seniors. The D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation regularly sponsors bowling at Howard University on weekends as part of its winter urban youth camp programs, according to department spokesman Ted Nicholas.


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