The L Word star talks about training with her muscular dystrophy and representing her communities.
Jillian Mercado talked about exercise the same way many others do: She replayed an ongoing internal monologue that ranges from “okay, this is hard” to “I’ve got this.” She laughed about her pain faces that she described as “not cute,” and smiled when describing the euphoric feeling that washes over her once a workout is complete.
“I get this adrenaline rush after a workout where I’m like, I can take over the world right now,” said the 35-year-old who stars as Maribel on Showtime’s series The L Word: Generation Q.
It does seem like the world is no match for the actress and fashion model, who landed her first modeling gig in 2014 with Diesel, has been featured in several major brand campaigns, appeared on the cover of Teen Vogue, and took the runway at New York Fashion Week.
As a child, she was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy. The condition causes a progressive weakening of her muscles as well as pain and stiffness. Mercado said she can feel her muscles tightening dramatically whenever she experiences intense emotions, anything from excitement to exhaustion.
The New York City native with Dominican roots grew up spending a lot of time in physical therapy to combat her condition until college life packed her schedule and zapped her motivation. That perspective shifted, however, when Mercado began struggling with simple, everyday tasks such as getting out of bed, climbing into the bathtub, or cooking for herself.
“That’s why I started working out,” she said, “because working out helps me build muscle and strength so that things could not be such a challenge anymore.”
Now, Mercado, who makes her way around in an electric wheelchair, dedicates two or three days a week to training. But the gyms don’t always feel welcoming or accessible, especially without elevators.
“It’s really bizarre going into a gym and feeling like I’m the only person there having equipment that’s not adaptable or safe for me,” she said.
It’s not just the machines that don’t address her needs or the lack of accessibility. Mercado said she also felt like she didn’t belong in a traditional gym setting. Having an intelligent at-home trainer released her from the pressure of feeling like she needed to be “glammed up” with a matching outfit, or nail each movement with perfect form because someone might be watching.
The fact that Tonal offers a strength assessment at the start, provides suggested weight, and includes the Spotter feature gave Mercado the confidence to know she’s strength training safely. “You don’t have to pretend you’re advanced,” she said. “You can go at your own pace in your own sanctuary.”
Her strength journey, though, is less about what she lifts and more about what she’s been able to let go.
“It was honestly creating a mindset that said ‘I don’t give a f–k what anyone thought,’” she explained. “For people like me, whose disability is very visible, I think we’re bombarded by so many opinions of other people and how they’re uncomfortable, not how we’re uncomfortable.”
Mercado, a disability advocate, is not shy about sharing her workouts on social media, showing her body on screen, or giving audiences a view of what living with a disability can look like. She said she struggled to find herself in her youth because she didn’t see people with disabilities represented in the media. “And it’s really hard to aspire to be someone or do things when there is no guidance, no rules or feeling like you’re literally not accepted in society,” she explained.
As a woman of color who identifies as queer, Mercado aims to be a representative for her various communities that she didn’t have when she was growing up. She uses the strength she’s gained not only to fight back against her body, but to empower others who are facing their own battles.
“If I can give advice to anybody wanting to work out but maybe not feeling like they are included in the conversation—it’s about what you want to do and listening to your own inner voice,” she said. “Because it’s your body, nobody else’s body.”
The information provided in this article is for educational and informational purposes only. Individuals with pre-existing health conditions, injuries, or concerns should consult with their healthcare provider before trying a new exercise or nutrition regimen.