26 Jul 2023

Train with Joan: The 76 year old who's in the best shape of her life

From Nine To Noon, 10:05 am on 26 July 2023
Joan MacDonald holding a copy of her book, plus before and after pictures

Photo: @trainwithjoan Instagram

At 70, Joan MacDonald was overweight, had high blood pressure, painful arthritis and found it difficult to walk up a flight of stairs.

Seven years later, she’s a bona fide fitness influencer with her own website and more than 1.8 million Instagram followers. Earlier this year she also released a book, Flex Your Age.

The secret to her success? Just getting started, she tells Kathryn Ryan.

“I can’t remember the exact mantra I had, but it was like, god gave me a gift with this body and I had better make the most of it,” she says. “I didn’t want to be in a home, I wanted to check off my bucket list.”

When she was 70, doctors told MacDonald, who lives in Ontario, Canada, that she’d need to increase her blood pressure medication. Depressed by this news, she told her daughter Michelle, a strength and fitness coach.

“Michelle apparently wasn’t aware that I was on any medication… she just said, ‘you can do something about this, I can help you’.

“I had been following her [work] for years and years and years, and her transformation groups, when she started those, I thought they were fabulous. What she did with these women, she gave them a healthy outlook on life, and just changing, tweaking their physiques with exercise and diet.

"I figured well, if she can do it with strangers, why can’t she do it with me? She threw down the gauntlet and I had to pick it up."

After talking it over with her doctor, MacDonald started working with Mexico-based Michelle, who treated her mother like a new personal training client. They started at the very beginning on all fronts – because MacDonald wasn’t confident with using a computer, her daughter would send her a PDF of exercises to print out and follow. Then she’d recommend exercise videos for her mother to watch on YouTube.

“I had no technical savvy at all, I was very bad,” MacDonald says.

Still, she was committed. For the first two years, she followed her daughter’s training plan, which involved four days of working out in the gym and a day of yoga “to get myself a little more flexible”. 

“My start was really bad… Half the time when I was doing the exercises I would get so nauseated, but Michelle would keep at me. The sweat was just pouring off me all the time. I kept at it, I couldn’t give up on myself. I wanted a better life.”

MacDonald also changed how she ate, going from “not eating a lot of food, but gaining weight because I was eating junk”, to being hungry and enjoying five small meals a day.

“You have to be very very aware of your body, what you’re doing, and get serious, not so much about losing weight but getting healthy,” she says.

It wasn't easy - "I wanted to throw in the rag in sometimes, but I kept at it" - and within a few months, MacDonald started seeing change.

“I was in a dark place when I started, I was short of breath most of the time, I was obese. When I look back at the pictures now, I see how big I was, I didn't think I was like that. Your mind is such a powerful thing, it can hide what is right before your eyes. You think one thing, but when you see the comparison down the road, then you can see, 'oh my god how can I not see what was happening to me?'. It’s an a-ha moment.”

Fitness influencer Joan MacDonald does a yoga pose

Photo: Joan MacDonald/Instagram

Ten months in, she was completely off her blood pressure medication. Other gym goers started commenting on her progress and taking photos to show her how she was doing.

“That first year was something else. It just got me where I liked going to the gym first thing in the morning, doing what I had to do and then the day was mine after that.”

By the end of the first year, MacDonald had lost 50lbs (22.7kg) and realised that she was changing more than just how she looked. Understanding the ‘why’ she was doing it was the key, she says.

“If that ‘why’ is strong enough, you’ll keep doing it. It’s not a goal, it’s a lifestyle.

“I had only wanted to lose 30 lbs in that first six months. I exceeded that, so it got me curious. If I can do this, where can I go from here?”

Encouraged by Michelle, MacDonald started an Instagram account to share her story with others. When a social media-savvy friend saw how her account was blowing up with followers, she discovered she could turn her transformation story into a business.

“He said, ‘hey, she should be making money out of this’,” MacDonald says.

"I said, what do you mean, I'm not doing anything except working out?'"

At three times the age of most fitness influencers, MacDonald is now happily claiming some space as an older woman – doing the splits in a bikini (“if I can do it, you can do it”), endorsing clothing and equipment, and promoting her own fitness app.

Initially, most of ‘Train With Joan’s’ followers were aged 25-35. MacDonald says she thinks they’re showing their parents or relatives that they can transform their lives too.

"I still have the younger ones, I’ve had 20-year-olds writing to me saying, 'I follow you because I want to be just like you when I'm your age'."