curious cow with wide angel lens
Photo by Wolfgang Hasselmann / Unsplash

I pulled back the curtains on an Influencer, not in a mean way, but a teaching way. I guess I shouldn’t do that, according to some folks.

Dear Reader, this article is a time investment. It's long but pithy, and it might shed some important light on why your fitness journey can be so damned hard at times. Might be worth the investment. Let me know.

My friend Michael, who is in his early seventies, a long-time athlete and fellow veteran, was all agog when he told me about Joan MacDonald, the 75-yo Ottawa native who has revamped her body very late in life.

I looked her up. It’s easy. She’s all over the place. More than a million followers, she is now selling fitness and beauty in her mid-seventies. Google her name, all kinds of photos pop up. Look, first and foremost, as I said in my original story, I AM A FAN of anyone who can take their fitness in hand at any age.

I wrote this story about her:

HOLY JOAN! Why This Story Should Come With a Warning Label
As with all Cinderella stories, most of us handily forget about the coal-hauling and chimney-sweeping before Ms. ’Rella got swept off her…

Kudos to those who have an inspirational story.  Her story really does have major legs. And, and BUT, as I said in my article.

All too often those who see her story miss the hard details, and make the  mistake, and we’ve likely all done it, of not taking into account all of how she got there. Then, in comparing her results and her journey to our own, we get discouraged and give up.

Therein lies the problem with so-called “fitness gurus.” Everyone who is out of shape wants to be Joan. Get her results. When they don’t, or when it becomes achingly clear that YOUR body and YOUR discipline and YOUR financials and YOUR way of life cannot possibly translate into that particular lifestyle, you give up. Most folks do give up, for several reasons:

  1. Anyone can lose weight. Anyone can build muscle. ANYONE. The short term results are terribly exciting and motivating. When you realize that there is never ever ever ever EVER a time when you can completely slack off again (not if you wanna maintain, that is), that’s when the high road gets really really hard. I know. I am on it, have been for thirty-five years.
  2. The initial implicit brand promise, and Joan makes one, that you too can do this, is a lie. Not that we can’t get some kind of results which can improve our lives, but that you can be like Joan. NO. You can’t, because you aren’t Joan, there’s only one. You might get even better results than Joan, but the unfortunate sales pitch of ANYBODY CAN DO THIS is a bald-faced lie. And that is why I went after the story.

Any one of us can indeed improve our diet, exercise and daily habits. Of course we can. There are whole communities following Joan and her daughter, and doing their own workouts in their garages and living rooms, as one writer mentioned.

Again GOOD. However, did all those folks bother to head to their physician to determine, as we all must as we age, what potential problems we might have with our physiology? Problems and challenges which need professionals to address before we throw ourselves into a diet and exercise program, particularly if we’ve allowed ourselves to slide into obesity or abusive habits?

Did any one of those folks do the hard dive into Deep Work to understand why they even got to poor health in the first place? For as with all diet recidivists, there are damned good reasons why you and I cannot maintain good habits. That begins in the soul and between the ears and deep inside our rib cages. Don’t speak to that, and the unspeakable happens. We slide backwards, to our despair.

You see where I'm going with this.

It is our unfortunate habit as Westerners, most especially as Americans, to think that if a little is good, then LOTS is even better. This is how we injure and skew our diets sideways to do harm.

I’ve been a strength and fitness fan for fifty years, a gym rat my entire life. I dumped 85 lbs in 1987 and have kept it off but for about ten pounds, thank you quarantine. I am in the 1%-3% of those who have sustained and built on that success, which gives me no small amount of agency in the matter. I have read, worked and written in this space for years.

I am very clear about what I do know and what I don’t know. The latter is vastly more important. That said, I am also, having been around the fitness industry for more than fifty years, VERY wary of the claims people make.  You pays your money and you takes your chances, but most folks have no clue how to parce the truth from the sales pitch.

Given that, and having watched far too many folks fail horribly at this, I am a careful fan of the Joans of the world. Didn’t say I’m not fan, but I am an informed one. When I see all this adulation, Ima gonna call it out.

That pisses some folks off. Some who have only been following her for a few weeks took umbrage. She is now the Sacred Cow of the aging community, and if you come after her, you are somehow breaking the rules.

The same kind of thing happened to Gillian Sisley who had the gall to come after the much-disgraced Rachel Hollis, whose spectacular fall from grace Gillian saw coming:

Rachel And Dave Hollis Played Themselves
Recent controversies have threatened the careers of this now-divorced influencer couple.

She wrote about the hate mail she received from those fans of Rachel who claimed she was “just jealous.”

Nope. Gillian digs for the dirt, and so do I. While I don’t see dirt with Joan, now that MacDonald is a bona fide product, she has PR and handlers and is being managed. The moment that happens, it’s all about product and profit.

So I am most definitely going to go after sacred cows for one reason only: we’re suckers, we only see what we wanna see, and then we overly identify with our sheroes and heroes and make full fools of ourselves when we follow them all the way down. Most invariably crash.

I have all the hopes in the world that Joan doesn’t. But she’s now a machine, with all the cogs and wheels that attend the Product Launch and training classes and merch and whatever the Powers That Be pile on to a damned good story.

She IS a good story. Again, she is not YOUR story.

When a good story gets monetized like this, someone needs to be a watchdog. That is what Gillian is so good at. For my part, because both aging and fitness are my lanes, I took on Joan's story for one simple reason. I’ll illustrate it in a story I’ve told elsewhere.

About fifteen years ago a fellow professional speaker, a man in his late sixties, got all excited about Body for Life. He had a sixty-plus inch waist and was beginning to experience serious health issues. He threw himself into the program, which promised MASSIVE changes in just twelve weeks.

Herein lies the problem. BFL showed a great many before and after photos, just like Joan. What they didn’t show was where those folks were years later, which is part of the sales pitch. My buddy, let’s call him Terry, steadily lost weight. The tactical error he made was to get a photo of a much younger professional body builder, a man clearly on steroids and whose bones and muscles were nothing like my friend Terry’s, and show everyone who would listen that this is what he would look like in twelve weeks.

He was convinced. Many of us are. That is the slick pitch, anyone can do this.

NO. Anyone CAN’T. Some of us do even better, most of us give up.

Terry, upon reaching the twelve-week point and having dumped fifty pounds, which is one hell of an achievement, realized that his stated and very public (and embarrassing) goal of looking like a man a third his age who had been lifting since puberty was well-nigh impossible. He gave up and returned to his previous habits.

The last time I saw him, he was even bigger. I’m not sure he’s even still alive today.

And therein lies the problem.

To that, please see this Redbook article which gets to the very heart of it:

There’s a Major Problem With Those Viral Weight-Loss Photos That Nobody’s Talking About
And it’s time people start talking about it.

Schlossberg writes:

Because don't forget that Instagram influencers, after all, are looking to bolster their personal brands and ramp up their followings, and they probably want you to buy their training program or sign up for some app or YouTube channel. By posting before and after photos with "CONFIDENCE!!!!!" written all over or underneath them, they're not-so-subtly telling women that this — the transformation — is how you get confident. So hop on the bandwagon, or forever feel like a lesser-than version of yourself. (author bolded)

Nailed it.

A callout on someone like Bill Phillip’s program or Tony Robbins (‘scuse me whilst I puke) and other big time influencers is sure to raise the ire of those who have hooked their wagons to those folks. They are already closely identifying with these heroes, and to call them out is like walking into a MAGA conference and using a bull horn to attack the Orange Fascist.

You’d better have damned good running shoes, folks.

But I will persist. Because the other comments I got underscored why I do this. Among others, this:

Refreshing to hear. I have been following the lovely Joan, but felt like a complete lazy failure in comparison. I feel better about my self now having read your article :-)

Yes. THAT. When you and I can look at someone else’s results with a well-informed eye, and stop barking at our bodies for not doing the same thing, we are released from prison. THAT is why I do this.

People who care about people will call out the dishonesty. While that will irk those who shirk the responsibility of doing their due diligence, I don’t give a shit.

I do give a shit about those folks who have hopes, are seeing them dashed, and who are willing to educate themselves as to why.

If writing about an influencer gets me hate mail, fine. Have at it. However, it is far, far more important to me that my readers and commenters have access to the other side of the story. I know this business and this world. I have done a shitton of work in it. I know a sales pitch when I see one.

None of this takes away from Joan’s story or her accomplishment. None of it. What you and I do have to do is keep our heads squarely on our shoulders when we read such stories. If she inspires you to get after your own health, have at it. But don’t make Terry’s mistake. You aren’t Joan; chances are you don’t have a daughter like she does, and chances are also good that you might be wise to get a checkup before you leap into a new program after sixty.

Especially if you’ve never done it before.

I got a reach out from Nurit Amichai, who is a multi-certified trainer, a woman in her mid-seventies, and a former bodybuilding competitor. With all respect, I am far more likely to lean into what she has to say in her wellness business than what Joan writes. But that’s just me. I have extremely high standards for my fitness training and instruction because I know what to look for. When you don’t, anyone but anyone with a good story can sideswipe us into parting with our precious dollars and time.

Here is Nurit's website:

Health, Nutrition and Lifestyle Coaching
Health, Nutrition and Lifestyle Coaching to uncover and rediscover who you are and what you’re capable of. Redesign your life using powerful tools to change old habits into positive new behaviors.

You might understand why, if I am going to lean into a training program, I am more likely to turn to someone with her credentials. Here they are:

Certified Health Coach Health Coaching Institute, USA Certified Vegetarian Health Master Vegetarian Health Institute, USA Certified CBT Practitioner Hypnotherapy; Practitioner Mind-Body Trainer

You get it. Penny Nelson is also training with a pro, and her results are slow and steady. At 73, they need to be. All of us need to mind our minds, the mind-body-spirit connection and all the subtleties that learning to be our best selves demands.

The kind of rah rah, wholesale sales pitch that I see with too many influencers is that we want what we perceive they have. Most likely, we are dead wrong.

Here is Nurit at 48:

From Nurit's website

Nowhere on Nurit's website OR MINE does she state that you too, can look like this. Because you can't. You're not Nurit. You're you, and learning to be your best you begins with great honesty.

You will forgive me if I point out that Nurit has years and years at this. While Joan’s daughter is also a pro, the difference is the broad range of offerings that someone like Nurit can provide, which many of us need.

To change our bodies we first have to change what’s between our ears.

When we leap wholesale into the notion that ALL YOU GOTTA DO IS X, we miss the much larger makeover that begins with self-awareness.

It isn’t just about the body. The body is a reflection of what’s going on inside the mind and heart.

When you choose someone to follow, first and foremost check your motivations. Then check your ego at the door, and find your way to that part of you which you are trying to heal. Our over-eagerness to follow some influencer speaks far more to what is lacking inside us than the inherent wisdom that invites us to look past The Wizard of Oz bells and whistles to a simple truth:

There is only ONE path to health. That’s YOUR path.

An influencer has a profit motive, by the nature of the beast. The moment PR, profit and becoming THE NEXT BIG SENSATION outweighs the gifts we have to give one another, it’s time to either move on, or at least pull back far enough to zip up our wallets and ask whether or not this is still a fit for us.

Don't like it when I go after your sacred cow? Then the first question I will throw at you is why are you so identified, SO invested in having their story be perfect?

And finally, the kicker. What the influencer business does not tell you, what the weight loss industry does not reveal, is that nothing fundamental changes.  Even if you do lose all the weight and get in shape, the great bells of Notre Dame do NOT ring for you. If anything, folks can get jealous and envious and previous friends suddenly show up with fresh bread, butter and cookies. You get it.

The journey does not begin with Joan. It begins with YOU. Whatever YOU decide to do, whomever is your inspiration, has to be for your reasons, and not because you think your life will be all roses and cherries when you reach your goal.

Nope. It won't. I can testify. That's when the real work begins for the rest of your natural life. Joan can't help you with that. And that is precisely why this journey needs to begin between your ears, and listening to your heart.

Photo by Surface / Unsplash

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