Fitness Ready: Know Your Body, Stretch Your Limits

Joan MacDonald, the 75-year-old fitness guru, tells us how to kickstart a workout routine and stick to it.

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- Posted on Jun 10, 2021

Joan MacDonald; photo courtesy Joan MacDonald

For Joan MacDonald, the 75-year-old fitness influencer who’s gained a massive online following by sharing her inspiring body transformation on Instagram, working out didn’t come easy. At least, not at first.

MacDonald began her health journey with the goal of shedding the excess weight she’d gained over the years and healing some of the ailments that came along with it—high blood pressure, problems with her kidneys, arthritis; but eating healthy was only half of the equation. Her road to a happier self also required her to hit the gym, something she’d never done before. But she knew having the right attitude would be key.

“I've always been a hard worker,” MacDonald tells Guideposts.org. “Anything I do, I always put my 100% into it because I want to make sure I succeed. That's just the way I am. If I'm going to start something then I better keep at it and do it right.”

That was another key: making sure she was exercising with intention.

Her daughter, a fitness trainer, introduced her to a healthier diet, but MacDonald needed help when it came to working out on her own at first.

“I saved up my money and paid for a trainer for the first month just to get me going, and it worked,” she explains. “If you can, get a coach, just to get you grounded in the exercises you're going to be doing and [show you] how to do them properly, because if you don't engage the right muscles when you're doing it, it's not going anywhere.”

MacDonald thought working up a sweat was all she needed to do to see progress on the scale, but as she spent more time exercising at the gym and at home, her mindset changed. Suddenly, she was paying more attention to what her body was telling her, noticing when certain areas were sore and when certain exercises started to get easier. “I used to have a lot of back pain when I first started and I thought, is this going to work? Can I do it?” MacDonald recalls. The trick, she says, is to start slow and learn how far you can push your limits.

“When I first started … yeah, you get sore because you're using muscles you haven't used before,” she says. “But I never did any exercises to the point where I couldn't move. I didn't go into anything gung-ho, I was using very light weights.”

To recover from a particularly hard workout, MacDonald might take an anti-inflammatory, or use a topical rub to soothe her joints, making sure to give her body ample rest between visits to the gym and focusing on different muscle groups each time she hit the weight bench.

Her workout routine is fairly simple to follow—she posts videos on how to do certain exercises on social media—and she shared with us how important it is to address every part of the body when you start a fitness journey.

“We look after certain body parts, each day is a different one,” she explains. “I'll do shoulders, triceps, and the chest area one day. I'll do glutes and legs another day. So you're getting a lot of areas looked after but they're not all in the same day so that your whole body during that week is getting a good workout. So I do five days a week of actual exercises then I do two days of cardio.” But before each routine, MacDonald dedicates time to warming up those muscles, something she says is key to preventing injury and getting the most out of your exercises—especially as you age.

“It’s the stretches first,” she instructs. “Always do a warmup and a cool-down. That is major too. [You] don't want to have to be hurting.”

But accidents do happen, something MacDonald thinks everyone starting a new exercise routine needs to be prepared for. Last year, she was doing an at-home workout class when she tweaked her piriformis—a muscle near the top of the hip joint that controls a lot of lower leg movement. The injury irritated her sciatic nerve, forcing her to seek out a physiotherapist and adjust her workouts. She couldn’t do leg exercises for quite some time, and it would’ve been easy to view the injury as an excuse to give up entirely but again, MacDonald stayed determined.

“That's when my mind changed,” she says. She’d already lost weight and seen the results of her program, but instead of throwing in the towel, she wanted to push her body further. “The thing is, my mindset has evolved where I can accept there aren’t really any limitations because I can do just about everything I want to do.”

She relied on her daughter to help determine which exercises she could do safely; another reason she recommends having a buddy or a coach at some point in your fitness journey: “If you've got a good trainer, they know what you're capable of,” she affirms. But the experience also taught her to focus even more on herself and listen to what her body was telling her. “Now, if I feel that a little twinge where it's not supposed to be, I just don't do it.”

For anyone just kicking off their own exercise routine, MacDonald’s story—and her Instagram page—isn’t just motivating, it’s proof that good things come when we all push past our comfort zones and try something new. That’s been her motto every time she steps foot in the gym and it’s helped her push past some pain, setbacks and the expected discomfort that comes when you test your body’s limits.

“Always challenge yourself,” MacDonald says. “Don't do the easiest thing that you can do. See if you can try something different. And do the best you can. That’s all you can ask.”

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