He just turned 24, and John McDonald is telling people twice, three, and even four times his age what to do. It might seem a bit cheeky, if he weren’t so nice about it, and so knowledgeable.
With a background in local and college sports, and a bachelor of science degree in a new field called health promotion, McDonald started working at Synergy Fitness and Wellness Center in Red Hook two years ago. He began as a rehabilitation aide but quickly proved he had the expertise to be a personal trainer.
Health promotion is defined by the World Health Organization as “the process of enabling people to increase control over, and to improve their health.” It can go beyond individual behavior to encompass social and environmental conditions effecting health.
For now, McDonald is concentrating on the individual.
“My main goal is to improve the quality of life of my clients,” he said.
Currently, his youngest client is a16-year-old swimmer training for an upcoming competition. There are some others in their 20s and 30s, a “handful” in their 40s and 50s, and quite a few over the age of 65.
His oldest client is Margot Bachman, 96, who he speaks of with obvious admiration.
“She’s definitely made improvement,” he said. “She’s one of the most flexible people I know. There’s not too many people who could do what she does at all.”
Bachman is equally complimentary.
“He happens to be special,” she said. He pays attention to each person’s strengths and weaknesses, and their needs. Then, “he follows through.”
When a new client comes to him, McDonald said the first thing he does is to make an assessment. He asks the person to fill out a health history questionnaire and then talks to him to determine his goals.
Some people want to lose weight or gain muscle, some want to get generally fit. Some are motivated by vanity, others by a health scare. Some are trying to improve on an already impressive regimen. Some are trying to regain physical abilities they’ve lost to accident, disease, age or prolonged inactivity.
He also gives his new clients “a little fitness test to see where they are.” Typically the test includes push-ups, sit-ups, squats, and a stretching exercise that involves sitting on the floor with legs outstretched and reaching for the toes, with hopes of someday actually touching them. (McDonald himself stretches inches beyond the toes with no apparent effort.)
Once he’s made his assessment, he draws up an individualized plan based on needs, goals and life schedule.
Training is not just about strength, McDonald said. He concentrates also on endurance, flexibility and balance. Weight-bearing exercises are especially important for anyone with osteoporosis concerns.
Like the fitness plan itself, McDonald’s motivational approach is also individualized.
“Everyone’s different,” he said. The woman trudging along on the elliptical trainer speeds up when he suggests she “visualize yourself on the cruise.” With some, he may take a slightly more stern tone. And humor is always a handy tool.
Whatever the approach, the outcome is universal.
“It surprises people what they can do,” McDonald said.
“I like to explain things to them,” he added, so his clients feel comfortable also working out on their own.
A firm believer in the health benefits of regular exercise, he said some clients, with their doctor’s blessing, are able to cut back on medications they take for chronic conditions. Some have been able to avoid knee or back surgery. And of course exercise is a great stress-reliever.
McDonald is a walking advertisement for the benefits of physical activity.
“I enjoy doing it, it makes me happy,” he said. “I’m a sports guy.”
In high school, he concentrated on basketball, football and soccer; in college he played club basketball and club soccer and “pretty much everything” in intramural sports. These days he plays in the St. Thomas men’s soccer league, with games at Lionel Roberts Stadium.
Actually, he plays soccer “three or four times a week,” he said. He usually goes on an exercise run with his girlfriend, Shekaya McCarthy, three or four times a week too; he gets in some strength training two or three days a week, pretty much does workouts with each of his clients, and for fun, there’s always pick-up basketball or a hike with Shekaya.
“I couldn’t sit behind a desk,” he said. He tried it once, taking a summer job at the phone company as an account assistant, and that was enough to convince him to continue on a more active route.
Next summer, he’s heading back to school to pursue a post graduate degree in physical therapy at Mount St. Mary’s College in Los Angeles. It’s a three-year doctoral program.
“I know it won’t be easy,” he said. “But I’m passionate about it.”