Joan MacDonald can now look in the mirror and feel confident in who she is and what she sees — stronger, healthier, and happier at 73 than she has been in decades.
It’s a stark contrast to three years ago when she was in a “very negative place” and despised being in photos.
The then 70-year-old weighed close to 200 pounds and was prescribed daily medication for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and acid reflux.
She had previously had a tumour removed from her abdomen, underwent knee surgery, and had fallen down a handful of times. On top of that, she had progressive arthritis and her relationships with family members were strained.
“I was very uncomfortable and unhappy. I would do anything to not be in a picture because if I had a picture taken I’d hate it,” said MacDonald, a retired public servant who lives in Cobourg, Ont.
While she did have a gym membership, she didn’t exercise regularly and only used machines she was familiar with.
A turning point came when doctors said she needed to increase her medication dosage.
“[My health] was going downhill on a slippery slope. I had lost control and it wasn’t a good feeling,” said MacDonald. “It had to change. I didn’t want to end up in a nursing home like my mom did.”
Coaching from daughter
For years, her daughter Michelle MacDonald had been worried about her mom’s mental and physical health.
It was Christmas 2016 when Michelle and her husband, professional bodybuilders who run a private gym in Mexico, visited her mother and were alarmed by her waist size.
“I was shocked at how she was deteriorating,” said Michelle MacDonald, who observed the difficulty her mom had going up and down the stairs.
She decided to have ‘tough talk’ with her mom and pleaded to have her join an online six-month fitness program she was leading.
When her mother said yes, she was shocked.
To help her get started, Michelle MacDonald brought her mother to Mexico in January 2017, coached her on healthy eating and taught her the proper form and techniques with gym equipment and free weights.
“It was very hot and humid. I’m telling you, I sweat buckets. It was really, really difficult,” Joan MacDonald said.
Her daughter added, “she pushed herself very hard and she’s stubborn, so I had to get her to slow down. I always have to tell her to slow down!”
Joan MacDonald also learned how to use an iPhone and apps for training, meal planning and tracking progress.
Shed 45 pounds in 6 months
When MacDonald returned home after two weeks, she continued following her daughter’s instructions and reported every week to her online fitness group of 10 women from around the world.
Every week, they discussed how they were doing and posted progress pictures — something MacDonald initially didn’t like doing but eventually saw how valuable it was.
Within six months, she was down 45 pounds and posing for the cover of a fitness magazine with her daughter.
Her initial goal had been to lose fat and keep it off, but as MacDonald continued exercising, she started to see muscle definition.
“People think that lifting weights [at my age] is terrible for your body. But the more you lift, the stronger your bones become. Why would you want to have soft bones?” she said.
MacDonald admits she was sometimes ready to throw in the towel, but knew she had to keep at it if she wanted to see results.
“There were times I would get angry that something wasn’t happening that I wanted to happen. I still had that anger in me for a couple of years. I’m getting rid of it slowly,” she said.
Inspiring over 119,000 Instagram followers
Last November, Michelle MacDonald created an Instagram account so her mom could share her transformational journey.
Now the @trainwithjoan account, which her mom posts on and manages on her own, has more than 119,000 followers.
“It’s remarkable that I can possibly influence people. It wasn’t to gain notoriety, but it ended up that way,” said MacDonald, adding that she is an introvert and doesn’t like being at the centre of attention.
“I do what I do and I don’t think about being a [role] model. If someone wants to take it that way, that’s great.”
She’s heard from people of all generations in countries like Denmark, India, Germany, China, Africa, Chile.
Most notable are followers who tell her they’ve shared her photos and videos with their mothers and grandmothers in hopes they’ll catch the fitness bug.
“I would love to have more people change their lives from being sickly to stronger and capable of looking after themselves,” she said.
Michelle MacDonald, 48, says she thinks many women her age can relate to the hardship of seeing their mothers age, being on medication, and slowing down.
“To see her do a complete 180 and get her health back and then some, it’s phenomenal. It’s the best gift ever. I’ve got my mom back,” she said.
“Even in your 70s, you can grow muscle. It’s beyond any expectation or inspiration.”
‘Now I’m going to live’
MacDonald is becoming more comfortable posing for the camera.
Since her fitness journey began, she’s appeared on several more magazine covers and even won a fitness competition.
“My husband says I look darn good,” she said.
But what she cares most about is being completely off medication and feeling a new lease on life. Her body, mind, and relationships are much healthier.
“We’re only here for a short time so I want to make the most of it. I don’t want to be what I was because I was slowly dying. Now I’m going to live,” said Joan.
Today, she’s 62 pounds lighter than three years ago. She goes to the gym at least four mornings a week, with two days focused on cardio and different muscle groups for the rest, and eats five balanced meals a day.
MacDonald hopes sharing her story can inspire other women, especially those in their 40s and beyond, to join a gym and prioritize their health.
“If you’ve got bad health, you’re not happy with the way you are, or the life you’re living, then start to take charge. Surround yourself with positive people who are going to back you,” she said.
“Do it as soon as you can. Don’t wait to be my age to do it. You might not be able to.”