portrait of joan macdonald

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Back in February 2018, a video of a woman with soft white curls doing a 200-pound hip thrust went viral. In the clip, she grimaces through the lift, and the caption reads, “I think I’m doing a lot of things wrong but they keep telling me I’m on the right track,” referring to the trainers spotting her. Nearly 123,000 views and over 700 comments after it went up, it quickly became clear that the woman’s feat touched something in onlookers everywhere.

The woman was Joan MacDonald. She was 71 at the time. She’d begun exercising barely a year earlier.

Fans and followers flooded her account, which her daughter, Michelle, created for fun to share her mom’s fitness journey and help hold her accountable. Four years later, the Canada native now boasts 1.8 million Instagram followers, has authored the memoir/self-help book Flex Your Age: Defy Stereotypes and Reclaim Empowerment, leads workout challenges and poses in her sports bra in magazines, and can max out a 175-pound deadlift on a loaded barbell. Her bio now reads: “It is my mission to inspire and uplift as many people as I can.”

Follow @trainwithjoan to see more of her strength-training feats.

Prior to her fast-and-furious influencer status, Joan moved through life like many others in their 70s: lethargic and on medications for high blood pressure, cholesterol, and acid reflux. She went bowling from time to time. She had many falls. “I wasn’t in shape, that’s for sure,” says Joan, who also had a knee replacement in 2014.

portrait of joan macdonald

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Fitness was a part of her world, but only tangentially. For years, she watched Michelle-—who coaches clients on nutrition and competition prep via her platform, The Wonder Women—compete in figure competitions. But it took a moment of “shock therapy” from Michelle, and Joan watching her own mom struggle to catch her breath going up and down stairs, for Joan to pick up a weight or touch a machine.

It was December 2016. “Michelle just told me point-blank, ‘You don’t have to get old like everyone else does,’” Joan says.

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Her daughter, who resides in Tulum with her husband, was honest about the reality that she would not be able to visit much with her mother (who splits her time between Ontario, Canada, and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico—both far from Tulum) if Joan went into a nursing home. “I saw it with my own mom,” Joan says, voice cracking, of watching her parent become sick and require caretaking at the end of life.

A slow, painful closing chapter didn’t interest Joan. In fact, it terrified her. So she told Michelle, “Okay, we’re going to try it,” finally committing to change.

She began by printing out PDFs of workouts that Michelle, who is a certified strength and conditioning specialist, created for her, eventually purchasing an iPad to stream YouTube workout videos. “My acid reflux was horrible. I was choking all the time. I felt just awful,” Joan says. “I could have stopped right then, but I didn’t. I wanted something better.”

By October 2018, she was off her medications. She joined a local gym. Other patrons began to comment on her sculpted back, her strength, her skills.

“I think a lot of people don’t want to start because they’re afraid they’re going to be under the microscope,” she says of those who may fear the gym or an unfamiliar activity. “But, truly, everyone is too worried about their own agenda.”

As she approaches 80, Joan is the strongest she’s ever been and receives a daily influx of testimonials from admirers, “a lot of whom follow me for their parents,” she says.

“You can’t compare yourself to somebody else. You’re unique.”

One follower reached out to let Joan know that she inspired her to get her mom, who has Alzheimer’s, into a nursing home that offered protein-packed meals and quality caretakers who encouraged movement throughout the day. At the end of the year, the follower wrote Joan a letter updating her on mom’s progress. “She could turn a doorknob. She could walk two blocks. She was getting stronger.”

joan macdonald

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Joan’s visibility online is something she views as a net positive. She doesn’t really bother consuming and comparing what more stereotypical (read: younger) fitness influencers are doing in the space. “You can’t compare yourself to somebody else. You’re unique. As long as you’re putting your all in, it doesn’t matter what anyone else is doing.”

Thinking back to being on-set for the Women’s Health cover photo shoot earlier this year—with a crew of fitness professionals mostly 40-ish years her junior—she says plainly, “We all seemed to think the same thing: Fitness changed us,” she says. “We go at it in different ways, but the goal is still the same—put the power back into the people. Let them take control of their lives.”

Meet the Rest of WH’s Forces of Fitness

Photographed by Caleb & Gladys. Styling: Kristen Saladino. Hair: Ty Shearn. Makeup: Rebecca Alexander at See Management using Danessa Myricks Beauty. Manicure: Nori for Chanel Le Vernis.

Headshot of Jacqueline Andriakos

Jacqueline Andriakos is the Executive Health & Fitness Director at Women’s Health, where she oversees all health and fitness content across WomensHealthMag.com and the print magazine. She has more than five years of experience writing and editing in the wellness space and has contributed to national publications including TIME, Self.com, Health, Real Simple, and People. Jacqueline is also certified in personal training by the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM).