Most yoga classes begin and end with participants putting their hands together, bowing their heads and saying the word, “namaste.” Pronounced “namastay,” it means “my inner light salutes your inner light.” For Allison Slade the word means more now than it ever has. It's a way of life and a new mission to bring activity and academics together.

Slade is the principal of a charter school in Chicago that opened its doors this fall to 90 kindergarteners and first graders anxious to learn in an environment much different than your typical public grade school. Unlike some schools where physical education has been cut due to shrinking budgets and academic demands, here children get a minimum of an hour of activity a day. The school's name? Namaste.

“The name is acknowledging that we are feeding both the minds and bodies of our students,” Slade said of the name that she and the other founder of the school, Katie Graves, decided on. “The school really had a philosophical underpinning that we believed in.”

That philosophy is that children, and families, do better when they eat well and move around. Recent studies have proven that kids perform better in the classroom when they're active and eat nutritious foods. Namaste is just putting this research to practice in a way no one has seen before.

“We feel like we created Namaste out of best practices in many schools,” she said. “Some focus on food and have no candy and no pop. Some focus on different PE activities or integrating movement. Our approach of the integration of health, fitness and nutrition is pretty innovative.”

Namaste students do the same type of academic work as children in other schools, but when reading or learning phonics, the children don't just sit, they move. For example, when learning the letter “M,” students just don't sound it out; They move their bodies to look like the letter.

Yoga is also a normal part of the day. Namaste is working with YogaKids Founder Marsha Wenig to provide professional development training for teachers who can take what they learn back to the classroom. She'd also like to form a symbiotic relationship with a local gym so that students have more facilities for activities.

Friday mornings are another opportunity for learning when families can come in with their student to enjoy a healthy breakfast and a short 30-minute workshop on health, physical fitness or nutrition. So far, they've had workshops on healthy eating on a budget and how to do yoga while watching television.

“I just think that it's important to emphasize that this is just not us adding 60 minutes, but that it's integrated in the curriculum,” Slade said. “It's a lifestyle; we want our families and teachers to live this lifestyle.”

More Time… Less Weight

Here's a rundown on the latest studies on children, fitness and academics.

In fifth, seventh and ninth grades, children with higher levels of fitness did better academically than those who weren't active. California's Standardized Testing and Reporting Program matched the results of a state-mandated physical fitness test to students' reading and math scores and found that the most fit were the most closely associated with academic achievement.

The September issue of the American Journal of Public Health published a study that found giving first graders just an hour or more of PE a week could reduce obesity rates in girls that are overweight or at risk for being overweight. Study authors followed kindergartners for two years and found that, on average, students only spent 57 minutes in PE a week. And, that by increasing PE by five hours a week, the prevalence of overweight girls decreased by 43 percent.