Every Thursday, kids at Sister MacNamara School anxiously wait for the final bell to ring, but not to flee school -- they grab their books, lace up their running shoes and hustle down to the gym for Running and Reading.
Eleven-year-old Joshua Salisi said he loves the club because it makes exercise exciting.
"You're having fun and being healthy at the same time," said Joshua.
Kids like Joshua are now part of a nationwide study looking into the links between physical activity and academic performance. National organization Start2Finish is teaming up with researchers across the country to evaluate kids from their Running and Reading clubs.
Sister MacNamara and William Whyte Community elementary schools in the Winnipeg School Division, as well as Joe. A Ross School in Opaskwayak Cree Nation, are participating in the study.
"We've known for a long time that our program works," said Silvia Ruegger, national director of the Running and Reading clubs. "The study is going to help us understand why it works."
Sister MacNamara School at Sargent Avenue and Isabel Street has been hosting Running and Reading clubs for three years in partnership with the Boys and Girls Club of Winnipeg.
Sister MacNamara teacher Mercy Sackey, one of the co-ordinators of the Running and Reading club at the school, said the 80 participating kids get really excited about the program.
"The kids absolutely can't wait until Thursday -- when I walk in the hallways, all we talk about is the Running and Reading club," she said.
Ten-year-old Macker Guluak has been going to the Running and Reading club ever since the school first offered it. He loves seeing himself improve through the program.
"It's pretty awesome, especially the beep test because it helps me get faster," said Macker, who was wearing running shoes provided by Start2Finish. "I just did it yesterday and right now I got faster."
Malaihka Siemens said the program has improved her confidence.
"You really learn how to push yourself and not give up," said 10-year-old Malaihka, who has been going to the club for two years.
Sackey said all the kids who participate are really dedicated; it improves their confidence and their social skills, as well as their academic performance.
"It has improved students' reading skills," she said.
However, the WSD doesn't have any readily available data about whether kids in the club saw an improvement in their grades.
Prof. Brian Timmons, an assistant professor of pediatric research at McMaster University in Hamilton, who is leading the study, explained there are countless studies that have found physical activity improves academic performance.
"We want to know whether the biggest improvement in fitness also means the biggest improvement in academic performance," he said. "We also want to know if there's a minimum fitness level kids need to achieve in order to improve their academics."
Grip strength is one of the things Timmons and his team are going to be looking at, because it's a good indicator of someone's overall strength.
Most studies have linked aerobic fitness to better grades; now Timmons wants to know whether muscle strength is also a factor.
Sister MacNamara principal Kim Midford said Running and Reading is part of other initiatives at the school that have helped improve kids' academics, such as a $105,000 grant from the Indigo Love of Reading Foundation the school received in 2011. "We see that as we strengthen and offer opportunity in all areas, that kids make gains," she said.