Flex: Meet Fitfluencer Joan MacDonald, the Poster Girl For Late-in-Life Transformation
Joan shows off her form in a striking sihouette: Silver dress from Alexandre Vauthier, at The Room; sneakers, Isabel Marant Étoile, available at VSP Consignment; earrings, Cotiledon; rings and arm cuff, Byor. Photo: Gabor Jurina
With 1.8 million followers on her @trainwithjoan Instagram account, this 77-year-old “fitfluencer” is the poster girl for late-in-life transformation.
Six years ago, Joan MacDonald was carrying 199 pounds on a 5-3 frame and hiding her 39-inch waist under baggy clothes. She had kidney disease, osteoarthritis, a reconstructed knee and was swallowing a cocktail of drugs to treat acid reflux, high cholesterol and hypertension. “I thought I was in a dead-end situation, and nothing I had done in my life was any good,” the 77-year-old said in a recent interview. Today, her body is celebrated the world over by 1.8 million followers on her @trainwithjoan Instagram account, as well as 56,000 on Facebook and almost 92,000 YouTube channel subscribers. And they’re not just watching the septuagenarian pump iron and flex her enviable biceps. They’re following her lead.
In a world that tells women the most important thing about aging is to be wrinkle-free, not ripped, MacDonald has helped quiet that chatter. The mother of three is 60 pounds lighter, medication-free and proudly posing in tiny bright bikinis and spandex workout gear. In the process, she’s become a poster girl for fitness and a self-help guru for people who, like her, aren’t happy with the skin they are living in. One 51-year-old Instagram follower credited MacDonald for kickstarting her health journey, saying, “Thanks to you, I exercise for my 70- and 80-year-old self. And thanks to you, I’m really looking forward to retirement in the future so I can practise even more training.”
While MacDonald admits she’s had an eyelift, there seems to be a lightness emanating from her face that is absent from her “before” pictures. “That’s what people have been telling me for quite some time now — that I shine,” she says over the telephone from a fitness convention in Las Vegas, which the Cobourg, Ont., resident was attending with her daughter, Michelle MacDonald, and son-in-law, Jean-Jacques Barrett. “Whatever has happened is coming from the inside now.”
Newton’s first law of motion states that a body at rest will remain at rest until an outside force acts on it. For Joan, that force was Michelle. During a 2016 Christmas visit to the house Joan shares with Norm, her husband of 54 years, Michelle was on the verge of tears as she watched her mom get winded walking up a flight of stairs. “I can give you a better life,” she told her. An International Sports Sciences Association-certified strength and conditioning coach, and bodybuilding specialist, as well as a sports nutrition coach, Michelle trains women through her online program, The Wonder Women. Joan remembers the moment Michelle issued the ultimatum. “She literally sat me down and told me, ‘I will not be there to put you in a nursing home. I will not change your diapers. I’ll be here for you now to help prevent that. But you have got to do the work.’”
Michelle, a former competitive snowboarder, started her own fitness journey in her 20s, but when she saw a friend compete in a bodybuilding show 14 years ago, she wanted the same results. A friend referred her to Barrett, a bodybuilder and coach. She hired him, and later married him, and together they run the Tulum Strength Club in Mexico, two hours south of Cancun on the Caribbean Sea. This year, they became the first couple to win titles at the World Beauty Fitness & Fashion championships, a yearly contest where participants are judged for their overall beauty, body tone and shape.
Michelle brought Joan to Mexico and began to train her that January, along with 10 other clients taking a six-month online Wonder Women program. Michelle pulled zero punches with Joan, despite the fact that she was (and still is) her oldest client. “We don’t train their age; we train what’s going on with that individual,” says Michelle. “For Mom, her range of motion was not good, and her balance was off, and it was easy for her to get out of breath.”
Michelle’s program is built around a type of strength training called “progressive overload,” where the intensity and/or difficulty of workouts is gradually increased over time to regularly challenge the body.
Joan’s fitness routine hasn’t changed much since she started in 2017. She still does yoga for flexibility, high intensity interval training (HIIT) for cardio, and works out with weights four or five days a week for at least an hour-and-a-half — always first thing in the morning when she has more energy. Her strength-training workouts are split between upper and lower body: two days of legs and glutes and two days of chest, shoulders and arms, or back, shoulders and arms.
Joan’s diet also needed an overhaul. She was eating three meals a day, but all the wrong things, and snacking heavily. In order to lose fat and build muscle, Michelle put Joan on a macronutrient diet, which eschews calorie counting and concentrates on achieving the right balance of all three macros — proteins, carbohydrates and fats — and increased the number of meals she ate to five a day. Within six months Joan had lost about 45 pounds.
By the second year, Michelle says Joan began looking like a “fit grandma,” but it wasn’t until the fourth year that they began to see wiry muscle, less stubborn body fat and a thinner face. Michelle says she learned two things from training Joan: patience, and that turning around the effects of an unhealthy lifestyle in old age is possible. “You don’t need to do things exactly right. You just have to have more wins than losses.”
Dr. Lindy Romanovsky, Medical Director of Geriatric Rehab at University Health Network’s Toronto Rehab — and a specialist in the physiology of aging — says Joan’s story is a great motivator, and a reminder that older adults can improve their health. But she cautions that an extreme transformation like Joan’s might not be attainable for a lot of people.
“It’s human nature; we get discouraged,” says Romanovsky. “‘If I don’t see those kinds of results, then I give up.’”
She stresses the importance of weight-bearing exercise to combat osteoporosis and sarcopenia (the term for age-related loss of muscle and strength). But the reality of injury means starting small — with resistance bands for example — and getting medical clearance before you start, because some cardiovascular or neurological conditions, and even some medications, might rule out an intense exercise program.
“Starting off slow and gradual leads to big change and most importantly, sustainable changes, because it’s the sustainable changes that are important.”
The story of how Joan went from bowling as her main form of exercise to bench pressing 90 pounds, box squatting 125 pounds, deadlifting 175 pounds and hip thrusting 245 pounds is spelled out in the 2022 book she co-wrote with her daughter, Flex Your Age: Defy Stereotypes and Reclaim Empowerment. It’s a hero’s journey of sorts, starring Joan as Artemis, shooting arrows at society’s expectations of what older women can do. Instead of one-size-fits-all meal plans and standardized workout routines, the book talks about changing the story you tell yourself and finding a community that will help you along the way.
A combination of physical training methods, nutrition fundamentals and mental conditioning, it’s chock full of slogan-worthy “you-go-girl” positive reinforcements, and emphasizes emotional well-being. Joan gets a little religious, in parts, talking about how bodies are gifts from God. The overall message is: Be like Joan. Join our club and we’ll show you how.
Before she began her fitness journey, Joan didn’t know anything about Instagram and only bought an iPhone to download fitness apps and track her nutrition, and an iPad to watch exercise videos. Michelle set her up on Facebook, a YouTube account and Instagram, which was a big leap for an introvert who hated having her picture taken. After Google bought a video in 2018 of Joan hip thrusting 200 pounds and posted it on their year-end “best-of” list, “that’s when things started blowing up and I became this person people were listening to,” says Joan. “I wasn’t interested in becoming a public object or person. So, I’ve been kind of going through with the flow and hoping I’m not screwing anything up,” she laughed.
Being online has meant being trolled, and Joan has been criticized for colouring her hair, the way she dresses, her teeth, and even for trying to profit off her story. Both Michelle and Joan say the goal has always been to inspire people, something Joan has managed to turn into a small business, as a growing influencer concerned with a clothing and supplement sponsor, paid advertising on YouTube book sales and the sale of the Train with Joan app, which has a little over 1,000 downloads.
On social media, you can watch Joan doing pull-ups in the gym, pushups on the beach, preparing meals with Michelle and riding her bike along the Mexican coast with a little rescue dog named Coba in her basket. She’s also been interviewed on CBC.ca and Good Morning America, featured in dozens of online articles and appeared on numerous fitness magazine covers, while people regularly re-post her clips on their TikTok pages.
Joan’s story seems to have struck a chord at the right time. When COVID-19 forced gym doors to close, people moved online, and in the post-pandemic world, many are choosing to stay there. With last year’s release of the Train with Joan app, Michelle believes they are getting the message out that older women can be trained.
Despite being the catalyst for a mini-media enterprise, Joan says it’s Michelle’s empire. “I am the conduit. And if I can do that and help other people, I don’t care if someone else gets the praise. We’re all working together to do this, to spread the word, to make the ripples in the pond,” she says. “To have a healthy society would be so much nicer than what we are living in right now.”
Joan describes her community as her global sisterhood. “When a person starts feeling healthy, everything seems to change,” she says, starting to tear up, and then apologizes for getting choked up. “Giving someone hope is a great gift. I get emotional about it because I’ve read so many stories from people that either changed their own lives or changed a member of their family’s lives.”
The bar of what old age should look like gets higher every year thanks to a slew of celebrities, including perennial provocateur Madonna taking topless selfies in her 60s, and Halle Berry’s Instagram photo, drinking wine naked on a balcony, accompanied by the message: “I do what I wanna do.” And now, 81-year-old Martha Stewart is posing on the cover of Sports Illustrated’s 2023 swimsuit issue.
The rise of muscled-up “fitfluencers” includes folks like 87-year-old competitive bodybuilder Ernestine Shepherd and 71-year-old fitness coach Wendy Ida, but Joan’s approachability drives the number of her followers. She’s relatable — an everyday person who has led a pretty ordinary life, and then done something extraordinary with it.
Joan says there are no plans to expand the Train with Joan business, and she wants to concentrate on staying healthy and seeing how far she can take her body. She doesn’t want to lose any more weight, but she wants to keep changing its composition: more muscle, more definition, more ripped, and she has no intention of stopping. “I actually can’t even entertain that idea anymore because, knowing me, I would probably lose interest and then I would be right back where I was,” she says. “I have to keep going because there’s so much to see and do, and I don’t know how much time I have.” It’s fitting that her hero is Terry Fox, who “knew he wasn’t going to last, but he wanted to impact as many lives as he could before he died.” At 77, she is acutely aware of her own mortality after seeing friends get sick and pass away. “They could be talking to me one day, and they’re gone the next. So, take each day as if it’s your last.”
Visit here for more on the pros and cons of macro diets.
A version of this article appeared in the Oct/Nov 2023 issue with the headline ‘Flex’, p. 62.