Joan MacDonald was delighted to welcome her daughter and son-in-law to her home in Ontario, Canada just before Christmas in 2016. What she hadn’t expected was her daughter’s reaction to the news that she was on medication for high blood pressure, high cholesterol and acid reflux.
“I was really huffing and puffing climbing up and down the stairs,” recounted MacDonald, who was 70 years old and 198 pounds at the time. “My daughter got really, really concerned. She thought that if she wanted me around, she’d better intervene.”
Luckily, McDonald’s daughter, Michelle MacDonald, happens to be a fitness trainer and coach. “Michelle challenged me, and I’m not one to back down from a challenge!” MacDonald said.
Just a few weeks later, in January 2017, MacDonald joined one of her daughter’s transformation groups along with 10 other women who were similarly determined to make a change in their appearance and ability. The only difference was that MacDonald was substantially older than every other member of the group.
By changing her food intake, physical activity and even her sleep patterns, MacDonald was able to improve her health enough to stop taking her blood pressure medication within a year. And now, at almost 76 years old, MacDonald is medication-free, 60 pounds lighter and slimmer than she was as a teenager.
And to top it all off, she can bench press 80 pounds.
MacDonald, who documented the transformation of her body from a size 15 to a size four on her hugely popular Instagram account, which has 1.5 million followers, said that as women, “We’ve been conditioned to accept the life we have without question—that we have to go through menopause, we’re going to get fat, everything’s going to fall apart after we’re 40. But that’s not true. That’s definitely not true.”
The hardest part is getting started
To kick off her journey, MacDonald decided to spend two weeks living with her daughter at her home in Tulum, Mexico in January 2018. Michelle had her mother weigh in and take photos and measurements, and then the real work began.
Those first weeks were extremely rough on MacDonald. Her acid reflux flared, and she said, “I wanted to throw in the towel many, many times, let me tell you.”
In addition to increasing the type and amount of her physical activity, MacDonald dutifully followed her daughter’s instructions for meal planning, shifting from two or three meals a day (plus snacking) to five smaller meals a day with a balance of protein, carbohydrates and good fats. But rather than feeling hungry, MacDonald ended up feeling full. “It’s beyond your mind that you can eat more and lose! It’s just what you eat,” she said.
Michelle also made sure that her mother drank almost a gallon of water per day and got eight full hours of sleep per night (up from the seven she used to get). Adding weight training to the schedule helped keep MacDonald’s bones strong, a major plus for women in her age category. MacDonald laughed that with her increased level of activity, she’s taken plenty of falls but has yet to break a bone. In fact, her bone density hasn’t changed in eight years.
MacDonald now spends the summers in her Canadian home and winters with her daughter in Tulum. But wherever she resides, she goes to the gym five days a week, doing two days of cardio and three days of cardio and strength training. When in Tulum, she routinely rides her bicycle to the beach 30 minutes each way.
MacDonald has undergone quite a lifestyle change for someone who previously didn’t consider herself to be “sporty.” Even so, she doesn’t cite her progress as being unique. “It's hard work. It's not easy. But anyone can do it. I'm not special. You just need to determine that you want to have a better life,” she said.
MacDonald transformed more than just her body—she had to transform her tech skills, as well.
When she began her first transformation challenge with her daughter, MacDonald had an iPad but didn’t really know how to use it. To track her progress, MacDonald had to figure out how to navigate the iPad, and she eventually purchased a smartphone later that year.
Michelle MacDonald encouraged her mother to start a social media account to demonstrate that physical transformation is possible at any age. At the time, MacDonald didn’t even know what Instagram was. “I guess because I was so late getting to use an iPhone, I didn’t realize these apps are how people communicate,” she said. MacDonald also has her own YouTube channel and “Train with Joan” app.
MacDonald’s followers aren’t limited to people in her age bracket. Most of her followers are women in their late 20s to early 40s who look to her for inspiration.
“I'm the conduit for presenting what is possible,” she said.
“Now I'm living.”
After beginning her fitness journey, MacDonald’s entire outlook changed.
“I'm a heck of a lot happier than I ever was,” she said. “Now I'm living. When I started, I felt that I was just existing, waiting for the day when I’d check out.”
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MacDonald discovered that there was a whole community of people who rallied around her and cheered her on as she made progress. They were thrilled to be a part of her journey. And thousands have started their own fitness journeys as a result.
Wondering how to get started? MacDonald said that all you have to do is this: “Get up off the couch or the chair and move. Whether it's dancing, biking, walking, running, whatever. Just keep moving.”
And as MacDonald has demonstrated, it’s never too late to begin.
She wants to remind women—especially mothers—to make time for themselves. She said, “You don't have to look after your kids till they're old. Bring them up. Give them all the tools to succeed on their own. And then it's time for you.”