Joan McDonald standing on a swing set in activewear.

5 life lessons from 74-year-old weight lifter and fitness influencer Joan McDonald

Posted by for Strength

Fitness influencer Joan McDonald proves that there’s no age limit on fitness. Here, she shares her greatest pieces of wisdom about health, confidence and finding the right mindset.

“I was always one of these people who stayed in the background, like a wallflower. I didn’t step foot in the limelight,” says Joan McDonald. It’s funny to hear this statement come from her now, given the fact that she has 1.3 million Instagram followers – which you don’t get by shying away

It took just one thing to help her go from wallflower to influencer: getting into the gym for the first time, aged 69. “In 2016 my daughter, a personal trainer, came to stay with me and heard me huffing and puffing up and down the stairs. So when my doctors told me they wanted to up my blood pressure medication, she challenged me to join her transformation group.

“I knew I was never going to change if I didn’t do something then and there, but I didn’t want to disappoint her and I don’t want to disappoint myself.”

To cut a long story short, Joan signed up to the challenge, taught herself to use an iPad and iPhone to access her programme, started eating more calories across well-balanced meals, went to the gym four days a week and slowly began lowering her medication. Five years later, she’s a fitness inspiration, and even competed at her first weight lifting competition this May. 

“Everything was very gradual and I didn’t really take note of everything that was happening until I sat back after a couple of years and looked back at the photos and progression and thought, ‘Yeah, I’ve done a good job’,” Joan says. “Fitness has given me a new purpose. I’m doing things that I would never have dreamed I would do. I’m currently building an app – a couple of years ago, I wouldn’t even know what an app was.”

Joan now trains five days a week, with upper body and lower body days on rotation, and some cardio in the mix, too. Does she wish she’d found strength training earlier? “I just wish I’d thought of myself more,” she says. “I always looked at my daughter and wondered if I could do what she did because I’m a very curious person. But that’s part of life and part of growing, and it’s why I continue on this journey now. I’m wondering how it’s going to pan out in the years to come because I’m getting older, too. Can I get even better as I get older? I think I can.” 

Given Joan’s vitality for life and excitement for training, Strong Women asked her to share the most important lessons she’s learned over the past five years in the weights room. Whether or not you’re ready to get under a squat bar yourself, she’s shared nuggets of wisdom everyone could benefit from. 

You need other people

“I joined gyms and tried to eat well before and they worked in the short term, but because there was nothing else with it and no one else doing it but myself, I just lost interest. This time around, I had a little bit more support at the beginning.

“I think it’s important to take advice and let people help you along the way. And take the compliments, too! It took me a long time, years even, to accept compliments without twisting them. I always felt like I didn’t deserve it. Now, I notice them – even from strangers.”

Take advantage

“I think young people now have an advantage when it comes to looking after their health thanks to technology and awareness, but whether or not they implement that knowledge is still a decision they have to make. Not everyone is doing their exercises or paying attention to their body, they’re simply existing in it. 

Taking charge is so important. Many of us just don’t think that we’re worthy anymore or don’t see the point in starting. We think: ‘We’re getting old, no one’s gonna listen to us’. But you just need to start, and when you start seeing results, it’s easier to keep going.”

Joan McDonald on a rowing machine in the gym in activewear
Life lessons from 74-year-old fitness influencer Joan McDonald

Take it slow…

“Nobody is perfect and we’re all going to do something wrong on our journey – that’s OK. You’ve just got to make little goals, not huge ones. Once you’ve accomplished that, then you go on to another one and you just keep growing that way. Remember that you’re doing this to feel happier, and you just need to chisel away one step at a time.” 

… but make sure you push yourself

“I see a lot of gyms and trainers that don’t want to push their clients because they are older, but they need that. I never realised how strong my body was and how much it could take, but now I enjoy pushing it. Just because I’m older it doesn’t mean I can’t take on a challenge.”

Health is a mindset

“The biggest part of this journey is the mindset. Women should never be nervous or ashamed of their bodies. When I first started going to the gym, I was wearing baggy clothing and hiding myself. Then one time my daughter took me shopping, and we went to Forever 21. I said, ‘I can’t wear any of this stuff – it’s for young girls, not me!’ Anyway, she made me try on some stuff, and they really looked good. 

I think accepting that you will feel some discomfort in the beginning in exchange for lots of comfort later is important – whether that’s in your training, as a result of drinking more water or even what you wear. Every person is worthy.” 

Images: Joan McDonald 

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Chloe Gray

Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).

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