Fri, Jan-05-24, 11:33
I was unfit and fat. Now, I’m a fitness guru at 77
Joan is definitely an inspiration for us oldies!
I was unfit and fat. Now, I’m a fitness guru at 77
Seven years ago Joan MacDonald was overweight, with high blood pressure. These days, she is posing for swimsuit selfies
Joan MacDonald is entirely untroubled by bingo wings. So taut and sculpted are her triceps, in fact, that she’s been accused of using steroids (she hasn’t), while you could crack Brazil nuts with her biceps. She can bench-press 45kg, do the splits and perform 8 full push-ups. She lifts weights for 90 minutes 4 times a week and does cardio training daily, while her meticulously planned and portioned diet is heavy on the egg whites and protein powder. It all pays off, mind you — at 77 years old, she has 1.8 million followers on Instagram and pulls in a comfortable income from brand endorsements and subscriptions to her fitness platform.
MacDonald is the first to admit that, seven years ago, a future as a global fitness influencer was not on the cards. Back then, she weighed more than 14st, was on medication for high blood pressure, high cholesterol and acid reflux, and climbing the stairs left her struggling for breath.
Today, she Zooms in from a white, sun-filled apartment in Tulum, Mexico, where she lives part of the year with her daughter, Michelle, a 51-year-old bodybuilder and fitness coach, and her son-in-law, JJ. The rest of the year she spends in her native Canada.
In a white shirt, delicate gold-rimmed spectacles and a tawny shade of lipstick (which she’s taken to only since becoming an Insta sensation; previously, she confesses, she believed lipstick “made you look like a hooker”), MacDonald is glowing and vital, a compelling advert for the disciplined lifestyle she endorses.
But, she says, it’s been a rough month. In late October her husband, Norm, died following a fall that caused a serious brain bleed. They’d been married for 56 years, and MacDonald grows teary when talking about him. “I’m not one that can hide my emotions very well,” she says.
To glance at her Instagram account, ~trainwithjoan, though, packed with motivational mantras, you’d have little idea that she’d been through a lot lately. There are perky gym selfies, swimsuit shots and pictures of the sprightly septuagenarian looking unfeasibly trim in jumpsuits.
“You can’t wallow in what could have been — you’ve got to go on,” she says. “And all you can think about is the best times you had with them.”
MacDonald’s “transformation” — a word she invokes often — has been primarily physical: from a 39in waist at 70, it’s now 28in. “I did get down to 26 — I don’t know how that happened, but I looked kind of thin to me,” she muses. “My hips were 42 or something, and now they’re 37. And I lost 4in off each of my thighs.”
But it also goes beyond the merely corporeal. “I didn’t start living until I started transforming,” she says. “And that’s because I changed everything. I changed my sleeping habits. I changed my eating habits. I changed the way I think about myself and I’m still changing there. It’s something that’s ongoing, that mindset.”
On paper, MacDonald’s words can sound hackneyed, like some sort of fitness Tony Robbins, littering conversation with “visualisations”, “manifestations” and “habit-stacking”.
In person, however — perhaps it’s the Canadian accent or her evident surprise, still, at where she’s found herself — it all feels much more authentic, inclusive and genuinely inspiring.
Among her generation, she says, “So many women are afraid to go to the gym. They say, ‘I don’t want muscle,’ and I guess I was the same way. I didn’t want to look like a guy.” She pauses. “But I don’t look like a guy. I do have muscles, but they don’t look bad.”
At the other pole is the myth that you can’t build decent muscle tone after a certain age. “Hogwash,” MacDonald cries.
Born in Newfoundland — where her father hunted and fished for some of the family’s food and the staple diet included elk, caribou, moose and bear — MacDonald grew up in Ontario, the second of seven children and the oldest girl. “I was second mum to my siblings,” she says.
She met Norm at work — they both worked in administration in local government — got married in her early twenties and had three children. She put on weight with each pregnancy, she says, “and then got bigger after each baby was born. And then I started thinking this was just who I was. That this was the weight I was supposed to carry. By the time I was in my fifties, I’d pretty much given up.”
She had friends more overweight than she was. “I consoled myself with that comparison. I wasn’t fat — I just needed to lose a few pounds.
“I put off doing things I wanted to do because my weight was in the way,” she admits. “I knew I was overweight… but when I saw photographs of myself I’d think, ‘It’s just the camera.’ ”
It was hard, she reflects, to overcome the ingrained idea that, “You should never put yourself first. You were there to care for your family,” she says. “Anything we’d call self-care was regarded as selfishness.”
One Christmas in Mexico, Michelle watched her mother struggle, huffing and puffing up the stairs.
Michelle had always been sporty and was, in her twenties, a competitive snowboarder. She is now a championship bodybuilder and runs the Wonder Women, a team of female fitness coaches dedicated to teaching other women. She sat her mother down and dispensed some tough love. Joan was going to end up like her own mother, in a nursing home, she said. Did Joan want other people to have to look after her? She could help, she said, but she needed her mother to join her training group.
“She didn’t hold anything back that day. I had to listen to her and it was a reversal of roles,” MacDonald says. Michelle said that she and her husband were off to the gym. “I thought, well, maybe if she helps other people, she could help me,” MacDonald says. She remembers finishing the first exercise that first day “and collapsing” but, within a few days, feeling a growing sense of commitment. “It was like learning a different language,” she says.
Michelle’s coaching programme requires participants to photograph themselves at regular intervals. “The first thing that got to me was having those before and after shots,” MacDonald says with a groan. “You have face on, side on and back on. Taking those pictures when I was that big, I was horrified.” But, she says, they were crucial. “Because you do not remember exactly what you looked like. And if nothing else can motivate you, that has to.”
Even more challenging, however, was the tech. “I’d only had an iPad for about a year before I got started with this. I didn’t have the phone or a computer that I could really do things with.” Back in Canada, she struggled to download the workout sheets she was sent by Michelle on PDF.
Yet MacDonald persevered and was soon seeing dramatic results. In 6 months she had lost 3st. After a year, she’d lost another. She now weighs just over 9st. Michelle realised the powerful potential of her mother’s journey and in 2018 launched her on Instagram as Train with Joan.
After such a tremendous weight loss and suddenly being on social media, did she feel the need to buy a whole new wardrobe? “Yes, but I was afraid to buy too much because I thought, well, if I’m continuing to lose weight, I can’t afford to buy new clothes all the time,” MacDonald insists. “I was on a pension and had to be careful with my money.”
She bought a few pieces and, she says, “Workout clothes stretch, so you don’t need to replace them all the time.” But one of the great joys of her new body is, she says, “that I get to dress the way I always wanted and didn’t think I could before”. And thanks to her social media stardom, “When I see something that I really like, I don’t even look at the price tag any more. If it looks good on, I’ll get it.
“I have no idea what my worth is,” she says with a shrug. She doesn’t look after the business side. “All I know is I can do some things that I never used to be able to do. Like travelling.” And the eyelid surgery she underwent in 2019 too.
She is rigorous about meal planning, aiming for a daily intake of 150g protein, 120g carbs and 40g fat. She eats five small meals a day at three-hour intervals, starting the day with porridge before having a second meal of egg whites, cheese, protein (beef, pork, chicken or ham), vegetables and an English muffin.
Meal three is yoghurt, blueberries and protein powder. The next is a lot of vegetables plus protein, and meal five — really not a meal at all in anyone’s book — is coconut water and protein powder blended with ice. “It’s like a parfait — like dessert,” MacDonald claims.
It is all a far cry from my own vision of retirement, when I plan to take up smoking again and hope to spend my afternoons drinking red wine.
MacDonald does not drink at all. It’s a waste of calories, she believes. “And wine puts me to sleep.”
Does she never — especially when in Tulum — pop down the road for a burrito? “Burritos aren’t that bad, if you know what’s in them and how they are made,” she says, thereby discounting the whole point of a burrito to me. “And I do treat myself once in a blue moon,” she adds.
MacDonald clearly has discipline and determination in spades but, she says with evident regret, could not convince her husband to join her in her new regime.
“When I met him, he was very active,” she says. “He was a good baseball player. He was a good hockey player. And he just lost interest. When he got into his fifties, he just dropped everything, which was kind of sad.”
While she was pulling on Lycra and heading to the gym, “He stayed at home. He didn’t want to try at all,” she says.“I tried to persuade him, but you have to be in that mindset.” Which is not to say that Norm wasn’t proud of his wife’s efforts. “Oh, he bragged about me when I wasn’t around,” she laughs.
Although the idea behind her platform was to help encourage other older people to become active, MacDonald reports that “most of my following is younger people, late twenties upwards”. Many of them, she says, want to help their parents or friends.
Michelle runs the account but MacDonald responds to all the questions and comments herself. “I’ve been told I spend too much time doing that,” she says with a sigh. “I just feel they put the time in to read and ask questions so they deserve an answer.
“But I’m very slow and I have to think things out, and you don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings at all.”
She has also established a reputation for “telling it like it is”, she says.
“If someone is saying, ‘I can’t do this, and that didn’t work for me,’ I’m going to say, ‘Did you put your all into it? Because if you did, you wouldn’t be saying that as you would have results. You can’t pick and choose. You have to do it all.’ ”
For all that MacDonald is softly spoken and amiable, it’s clear she takes no prisoners. Of her peers who accept the advice of doctors unquestioningly, she says, “They don’t want to try anything different. I’m going, ‘All you have to do is give up having those cupcakes.’ ”
Of men growing lazy and complacent, she says, “They get too damn comfortable. They don’t want the challenge any more.”
And of the current focus on the menopause, her view is that, “A lot of women blame a lot of things on the menopause, when if they changed their thinking it would be a lot better for them.
“You have to change the story,” she says. “Stop feeling sorry for yourself. There are no easy answers to anything in life. You have to own your mistakes and that’s a hard pill to swallow, but you feel better when you do something about it.”
Even after losing Norm, she has not deviated from her strict regime. “It’s part of my life now,” she says. “And all in all, I feel a heck of a lot happier than I did seven years ago.” A few days after we speak, she’ll be heading back home to Canada to organise her late husband’s estate. After that, she hopes to travel more. “I’ve never been to Europe.
“And I would just like to see more people — more women especially, but it wouldn’t hurt for men too. I know they’re a hard case to convince — taking life in their own hands and making it a commitment to themselves to be healthy,” she says. “I would sooner see more people doing preventative care than fighting for more healthcare funding.”
Ultimately, she believes, we all have it within us to be more Joan. “You don’t have to accept ill health or an erosion of your life. It’s not a done deal unless you want it to be.”