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Exercise linked to academic performance

Julius Sawhney, a preschooler at Red Wing YMCA Sunshine Corner, rides a scooter in the big gym. Physical activity gives children an advantage in the classroom, teacher Mary Niehues said.

New research that says physical activity improves academic performance in kids is causing teachers to shut down the computers and bring out the scooters.

The connection between exercise and good grades was discovered by a group of researchers in the Netherlands, who wrote about their observations in the January 2012 issue of the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.

"According to the best-evidence synthesis, we found strong evidence of a significant positive relationship between physical activity and academic performance," they wrote.

Even before the research was done, area educators understood the effects exercise can have on young children, both physically and mentally.

"It's incredibly important," Sunnyside Elementary School Principal Patti Roberts said. "In fact, it is of great benefit to them developmentally. We notice with having physically active kids at noon hour, when they come back in from recess they're able to calm down better."

In 2010, Sunnyside and Live Healthy Red Wing implemented "Sunnyside Sneakers," a weekly event that tries to get students to walk or bike to school on Wednesdays.

While the elementary school is creating programs to encourage physical activity, one specific Red Wing school doesn't have to try quite as hard.

"We are at such an advantage," Sunshine Corner preschool teacher Mary Niehues said.

Sunshine Corner is located inside the Red Wing Family YMCA, giving its students easy access to large gymnasiums, racquetball courts and other facilities the Y has available.

"We do something physical every day," Niehues said, adding that they are thinking about incorporating swimming into the preschool schedule so students can make use of the pool.

For now, the kids get to run around the gymnasiums, ride bikes or scooters, climb jungle gyms and more. Sometimes Niehues will bring her students to Levee Park and play classic games such as freeze tag, "Ring Around the Rosie" and "Duck, Duck, Gray Duck," which are enough to get them up and moving. As a result, the teacher has seen improved focus when it's time for the kids to learn.

"Their attention span is better," she said. "Academically, this will help them just as much as a computer."

When encouraging physical activity, Niehues figures the younger the better. One day as she was telling her class it was time to put away their bikes and scooters, a student came up to her feeling confused.

"But my heart's not beating fast," he said.

"So we had to run around the gym a couple times," Niehues explained with a laugh. "You really can teach a preschooler about the importance of exercise."