Over the past several months, my older daughter has wanted to learn more about fitness and keeping her self healthy and in good shape. I have a sneaking suspicion a lot of this has to do with the fact that she’s starting high school in a couple of months. I’m willing to squarely say there’s a “vanity” quotient here, but whatever prompted it, I’m happy to see her embrace it and focus on it.

Lately, she’s been asking a lot about food and understanding how food plays into the broader range of fitness, weight, health, etc. and how it measures up to things like exercise, metabolism, genetics, etc. Having had a stronger than passing interest in bodybuilding as a youth and in my twenties (no great shakes, but I was pretty solid for a good stretch of years back then 🙂 ), I knew a fair amount about how to discuss some of these topics with her.

One of the things I made sure she understood immediately was that many of the images in magazines were a very brief snapshot in time. I also told her about (and showed her) some pictures of bodybuilders, figure competitors and athletes during the “off season”. Why? Too often, kids see the images made at the very tail end of a competitive cycle. That cycle may include anabolic steroids, growth hormone and other things, not to mention tanning spray, lots of professional lighting, and potentially a healthy dose of Photoshop on top of it. My point was to get her out of the mindset of “oh, I could never live up to that” (news flash: in many cases, they can’t live up to that either). Instead, I wanted to have her understand what was clearly under her control and what she could do and expect coming from a genetically typical place.

Once we were able to establish the ground rules and the reality of the playing field, we could have more in-depth discussions. One of the key things I suggested she do was that she create a few spreadsheets (or use a spiral notebook if she prefers) and for the next month, I wanted to have her record, in its entirety, everything she did to train, and everything she ate during the day. In the process, I created a simple spreadsheet for her that allowed her to do a few things:

– Create an ingredient list of typical meals she makes
– write down the serving size, and the number of servings she actually consumes
– record the protein, carbohydrate and fat grams for each item (I’ll have to show her how to navigate the USDA Foods index to estimate the calories from fresh fruits and vegetables, etc.)
– from there, the sheet calculates the total number of calories from each, and then breaks it into a percentage.

I’ve encouraged her to make a goal of total calorie consumption that leans towards maintenance levels. For her height and weight, that’s a rough estimate of 2,000 calories. In that, I suggested she aim for about 40% total intake coming from proteins, 30% coming from carbs, and 30% coming from fats. She can play with the sources of those. I recommended that she also aim for at least a gram of protein per pound of lean bodyweight per day.

From there, I have now stepped back, and I am curious to see what she comes up with and how she chooses to meet those goals.

This example, as I explain to her, is a way of getting data and learning about habits while creating basic constraints. As she chooses to navigate this, she knows she has a total (2000kCal per day), she knows a rough breakdown, and she knows one component she needs to focus on as a priority (that being protein consumption). Now, she can play with the foods she eats, actually learn what is nutrient dense and what is nutrient lacking, but most of all, she now has real data to compare and consider.

In testing, we often do the same things, we have a product that we test, and we may often do good testing, but we get complacent, and therefore we just do whatever it is we do. It’s not bad, but it’s not optimal, and very often, it’s not as informed as it could be. By framing our challenges (charters, missions, etc.) and creating constraints and prioritizing areas we really care about, we can often come up with very different testing scenarios, even if it’s within a narrow area. Just as I told my daughter that I don’t expect her to become formulaic with what she chooses to eat (it would be simplest to say “eat this, don’t eat that”, but where’s the discovery in that?), we shouldn’t be too prescriptive with our tests and what we do. We can be as prescriptive as we want to be with the framing, but the actual steps, leave some leeway there, as much as is reasonable. Don’t be surprised if you discover that you learn a lot more than you would if it was painted in black and white.