Photo by Talvaro Mejia

A viral video of a 200-lb hip thrust, landing multiple magazine covers, hosting a fitness retreat in Mexico, a social media account with tens of thousands of followers, and launching an e-book. These achievements may sound like items on someone’s vision board, but for 73-year-old Joan MacDonald, they’re already under her belt. 

Her journey began in January 2017, when Joan’s fitness trainer and daughter, Michelle, didn’t give her mother a choice: Joan was going to join her annual transformation program. “She was concerned about my health,” says Joan. “At the time I started the challenge, I was 198 lbs, on medication for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and acid reflux, my arthritis was bad, and I could barely walk up the stairs.” Joan recently had her knee replaced, making trips to the gym out of the question. 

“We’ve been brainwashed into thinking that after you reach a certain shouldn’t be doing this, and you need to take medication, and the opposite is true.”

It wasn’t the first time Joan had attempted to better her health, but in the past, no programs seemed to jive with her in a way she could commit to. This time, Michelle’s program was just the balance she needed to take her time and focus on her whole health. “I was far from perfect on many counts, but I always moved forward, no matter how slowly,” she says. Joan strength trained, practiced yoga, tracked meals on an app, and participated in the challenge with a small group of women who would also post their progress photos right alongside her (she dreaded that part). Joan’s weight and lack of balance caused issues with some exercises, but with modifications and time, she made them all work for her. 

But for Joan, exercise and nutrition weren’t the hardest parts: “Learning to use health apps was like learning a whole new language for me,” she says. “I grew up in a small village in Newfoundland, Canada where we milked our own cows—I didn’t grow up with technology. I was ready to throw in the towel sometimes, but Michelle and my son-in-law would coach me again and again how to use my phone.”

After six months of dedication, Joan had lost 45 lbs — and landed herself on the cover of a Toronto-based fitness magazine for women 40 and older. Keeping her momentum going, Joan joined another fitness challenge and went on to drop even more weight. The newfound strength and agility she experienced was motivating enough, but the real accomplishment for Joan was being able to give all her meds the boot. “It was better than anything else that could have happened to me.”

Getting used to her new body wasn’t without its challenges. Joan grappled with a voice inside that kept telling her she was overweight. “I looked in the mirror and still saw a fat person,” she says. But she worked hard to push past the negativity. “When people would compliment me at the gym, I’d try to see what they saw. Michelle would take great photos of me, and it helped to change my mind. It’s really hard work changing a mindset as old as mine.”

“Learning to use health apps was like learning a whole new language for me.”

Michelle created an Instagram account for her mother (@trainwithjoan) to keep her accountability high and to challenge her brain in new ways, and it’s gained major traction. “We’ve been brainwashed into thinking that after you reach a certain age, you go to the doctor’s office and you’re told, ‘You shouldn’t be doing this, and you need to take medication,’ and the opposite is true,” she says. “We should be encouraged to strengthen our bodies, so we have a better quality of life as we age.”

Along with Michelle, Joan will be hosting a wellness retreat in Tulum, Mexico in November 2019 (it’s already sold out—sorry), where you can expect strength training, yoga, homecooked meals, nutrition and mindset seminars, and excursions in a gorgeous and calm beach setting. Joan is especially excited about sharing her story of interlocking fitness and wellness with attendees: “Understanding why we do what we do is a big piece of the puzzle.” Joan’s e-book is also set to launch this fall, which focuses on helping beginners feel comfortable in the gym with exercise demonstrations included, along with a meal plan and recipes. 

At the end of the day, it’s not about the popularity that’s accompanied her weight loss. “I see that this is less about me, and more about a larger story. I’m so obviously a little, old lady (or elderly, if you prefer), and if I can do it, surely anyone can do it,” she says. “But for me, I just wanted to feel good about being in this body, and being alive and healthy again.”

Chelsea Clarke
Chelsea is a Toronto-based editor and writer, penning everything from investigative reports to inspiring profiles. She’s the current Associate Editor of Strategy Magazine.