Meet Joan Macdonald, the 74-year-old fitness guru

Four years ago Joan Macdonald was dangerously overweight with multiple health problems. Today, she can lift her own body weight in barbells and performs pull-ups for the delight of her 1.4 million Instagram followers. Anyone can do it, she tells Susannah Taylor

What do you believe about fitness as you age? That you can’t be seen in the gym over 60? That you shouldn’t do squats because they’re bad for your knees? Or that you can’t run because it’s dangerous? Perhaps you’ve resigned yourself to the belief that it’s all downhill from here on in, so you’ve quit exercise altogether.

Well, 74-year-old Joan Macdonald would challenge you on all of the above. Having transformed her body and got seriously fit and healthy at the age of 70, she is living proof that we can look and feel fabulous, wear crop tops with leggings like a 20-year-old and, more importantly, reverse chronic health issues no matter what age we are.

In 2016, Joan’s health was on a severe downward spiral. At 5ft 3in, not only was she very overweight (she was a size 18-20), but her cholesterol was rocketing. She also suffered from insomnia, had arthritis, a kidney problem and was plagued by constant acid reflux. Joan’s daughter came to visit and told her she needed to do something about her ill health.

‘She said she wasn’t going to be able to nurse me if my health declined any further,’ says Joan. Her daughter, Michelle Macdonald – who happens to be a personal trainer and yoga teacher – asked her mother to join her classes, which she did. It turns out her daughter saved Joan’s life.

With the bit between her teeth, Joan informed her doctor that her goal was to get off her medication, and under Michelle’s guidance she started a new exercise regime that included short bursts of cardio and using the machines in the gym. A few months later, as her strength began to grow, she was introduced to light weights. At the beginning she found that lifting 3-5lb (a maximum of just over 2kg) was tough.

Joan now weighs 9st 3lb and works out five days a week

Joan also started on a strict eating regime, following a diet of 900 to 1,000 calories a day with the aim of boosting her metabolism (this would increase to 1,780 over time). Her big problem was a weakness for junk food. ‘I used to love chocolate-covered nuts and sugary foods,’ she smiles. ‘But they were strictly not allowed.’ Instead, Joan started filling her plate with vegetables, limiting carbohydrates and including protein at every meal to encourage muscle growth.

Getting fit was not exactly a walk in the park, ‘but neither is it easy ending up in a nursing home’, she says matter of factly. ‘If you have visited a nursing home you will know it’s not a place you really want to be.’

Joan shares nutrition tips with her online fans

Joan’s goal was to lose 30lb (a little over two stone) but by October 2017, just a year later, she had dropped an incredible 45lb. And as Joan lost weight, the wellbeing benefits started rolling in too. ‘My blood pressure fell,’ she says – and she was also able to come off her medication. ‘I think the doctor was astounded,’ she adds. Not only that but her energy levels soared and she found she could move around better, no longer needing to hold on to the hand rail when she was going upstairs, something she says that was making her feel depressed and old.

Today, four years later, Joan enjoys a regular seven to eight hours of sleep each night, is a size 8-10 and, at 9st 3lb, now weighs the same as her daughter. She has lost an astounding 70lb (5 stone) and is regularly seen on her Instagram @trainwithjoan lifting her own weight in barbells or performing chin-ups for her 1.4 million followers. In the pipeline is an app aimed at those who want to get fit but don’t know how to get started, as well helping those who have limited movement.

In Mexico with her training team – daughter Michelle

Joan says she now doesn’t feel right if she doesn’t work out five days a week. ‘I feel something is missing,’ she explains. ‘Once it becomes a habit, it’s like brushing your teeth – you don’t have to think about it.’ She also spends a lot of time working on her well-defined core and her posture, both of which her daughter insists are vital as women age.

Is it not intimidating, I ask her, walking into a gym full of macho men with bulging biceps? ‘No,’ she says. ‘Most people are concentrating on what they are doing in the gym, so they aren’t looking at you.’

Fitness trainers always say that getting in shape is 70 per cent nutrition and 30 per cent fitness. Nutrition-wise, Joan now has four to five small meals a day, every two to three hours, each one containing protein, which is scientifically proven to build muscle but also to burn fat.

Looking fit and fab last year

‘I have 150-160g of protein a day,’ she says. ‘As we age we need more protein to build muscle, which is a real problem in nursing homes where they only give the minimum.’ Joan also turns down alcohol regularly. ‘What do I need it for?’ she questions. ‘Yes, it lowers inhibitions but that’s not always the best thing, is it?’ Brimming with smiles rather than ego, Joan is a marketeer’s dream. How have people reacted to her new life as a septuagenarian ‘fit-fluencer’? Her social media followers are mostly in awe of her, but no one is immune to negativity and occasionally she gets a bad comment about her revealing gym outfits which show off her incredible strong-looking body. ‘Who says I have to dress frumpily as I get older? If you don’t like it, then don’t follow me,’ she says. As for any cynical comments that she must be taking steroids: ‘I had to ask someone what steroids were,’ she laughs.

In Mexico with her training team son-in-law Jean-Jacques

In a world where we are usually told to ease up as we age and not to push things, what does Joan have to say about doing exactly the opposite? ‘You don’t have to age conventionally,’ she says. ‘It’s OK to think outside the box.’ But she stresses that the right mindset is key. ‘We often put limitations on ourselves without even knowing it. I always used to tell my daughter when she was little that if you put your mind to it you can do anything.’ The best thing Joan has ever done is heed her own advice.

Joan in a bikini for the first time since she was 27

HOW TO BE MORE JOAN

Follow these simple diet tips and easy exercises to help you on your journey to fitness

NUTRITION

  • Try to make food as tasty as possible, says Joan, ‘by simply adding spices and herbs rather than ready-made sauces’.
  • Take supplements. ‘I take a multivitamin, plus creatine, which boosts muscle, and collagen, which reduces inflammation.’
  • Drink plenty of water. ‘I always make sure I aim for three litres a day.’
  • Mix up protein powder shakes. ‘I make what I call ‘“fluff”, which is coconut milk, protein powder and ice. I use Women’s Best Chocolate Iso Whey powder [£22.49, uk.womensbest.com].’
  • Joan tracks her nutrition on the MyMacros+ app (£2.99).
  • She has four to five small meals a day, each one packed with protein. An example for one day is: Meal 1 Protein pancakes – Joan combines 50g of a protein powder pancake mix with water before frying in a pan, then adds raspberries and a little maple syrup. Meal 2 Egg-white omelette with cheese and turkey, tomatoes and half a bagel. Meal 3 Blueberry protein fluff – 100ml coconut milk, Women’s Best Chocolate Iso Whey, 35g frozen blueberries and eight ice cubes. Whiz in a blender and serve. Meal 4 Salmon with vegetables and slaw.

FITNESS

Joan trains five days a week for 90 minutes, including a warm-up and cool-down. She does a lot of weight training in the gym and mixes up her workouts. This is her at-home programme, devised by her personal trainer daughter, with videos @trainwithjoan. Start out by doing it three times a week.

Squat to chair (works legs and glutes)

Stand upright, feet just wider than hips with a chair behind you. Keeping your chest as upright as possible, squat down so that your bottom touches the chair briefly before using your legs to push back up to a standing position. Concentrate on keeping your core tight and your legs and glutes working hard. You can use a high chair or bench and then as you get stronger squat down lower. Repetitions: 4 sets of 10 squats with a rest in-between sets. Work up to 4 sets of 30.

Banded hip thrusts (for your glutes)

This is my favourite exercise for shaping my glutes. Sit upright on the floor, legs bent in front, with your back resting against a sofa. Rest your elbows on the sofa seat. Keeping your feet on the floor, squeeze the glutes and lift up until your thighs and shins are at a right-angle. Keeping your core tight, maintain a high planked position where your knees, hips and shoulders are all in line.

Hold for a few seconds and lower your bottom back to the floor. When it gets easier, use a medium resistance band just above the knees to build more strength. Repetitions: 4 sets of 10 with a rest between each set. Increase as you gain strength.

Banded rows (works your back)

Sit away from the sofa on the floor with your legs out in front of you, back upright. Put a medium resistance band around your feet, lean forward and grip the other end with your hands. Keeping your back straight and core tight, pull the band back into your hips and feel the resistance as you do so. Release and repeat. Repetitions: 4 sets of 10 rows, with a rest in-between sets. Work up to 4 sets of 30.

Incline push-ups (for your whole body)

While standing, grip the edge of a table top, arms straight, and your feet a metre away so your shoulders are above your wrists and your body is in a diagonal plank to the floor. Maintaining a solid plank, squeeze core and glutes, tuck in elbows, bend them and lower your chest towards the table before pushing back up to plank. Try 10 repetitions and increase as you get stronger.

If you are on medication or have a medical condition, please consult your doctor before embarking on a diet and exercise regime