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Daniel Sarandos, left, a nursing student at Montana State University, celebrates his mastery of the hula hoop Friday morning during “recess” at the Summit for Healthy Children. The summit, held at the University of Montana, focused on physical activity and its effect on learning for schoolchildren.

KURT WILSON/Missoulian

If children are more active during their school day, they perform better academically, Darla Castelli told more than 200 participants in a Summit for Healthy Children on Friday.

Missoula is ahead of the curve when it comes to promoting healthy lifestyles for kids, said Castelli, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

“The tough part about it is sustaining the effort,” said Castelli, who presented her research on the connection between physical activity and better academic performance.

Friday’s summit was the first of two, with a second on nutrition planned in February, and builds off the success of a summit aimed at ending childhood obesity held last fall. Missoula County Public Schools, the University of Montana and Let’s Move! Missoula partnered to present the summit, which was held at the University Center.

According to Castelli’s research, children who do a physical activity before answering questions, answer them faster and more accurately.

In one study, eighth-grade students who did a five-minute physical activity before answering 10 math questions outperformed their peers who weren’t active before the test.

More than 220 kids who participated in an after-school program that included physical activity, healthy snacks and nutrition information had much greater neuron activation when solving problems and routinely outperformed other students who did not participate in the program, Castelli said, showing scans of the children’s brains.

Bottom line – physical activity matters, Castelli said, adding that conference attendees should be champions for physically active students. “It’s everyone’s responsibility. We are all health promoters.”

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To ensure that Missoula-area students get enough activity in their days, summit attendees broke into small groups to discuss ideas and returned with suggestions for a Graduation Matters Missoula’s wellness subcommittee, which will then form an action plan for Missoula County Public Schools, said Susan Hay Patrick, chief executive officer for United Way of Missoula County.

Some ideas included: Use more physical activity in teacher professional development sessions so they can model healthy behavior for students. Tie activities to academic subjects. Have a take-home physical activity log. Tap into community experts and resources. Engage families and community members. And have classroom ambassadors who encourage all students to participate in physical activities.

Initial strides don’t have to be quantum leaps, Castelli said, urging summit attendees to start small, perhaps with more physical activity in one classroom. That will spread to a school, then a district, then to rival districts and so on. Once people see the positive impacts, they’ll want to join in.

To make the change at area schools, summit attendees should follow the rule that it only takes three people to create change, Patrick said.

Attendees already have a jump-start – they only have to find two more people, she said. “They have to be the right people, and change rarely happens overnight. But it only takes three people.”

Reporter Alice Miller can be reached at 523-5251 or at alice.miller@missoulian.com.

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