Red-Hot Mama

The Biggest Loser host Alison Sweeney loves a good challenge. I Iere, the actress, director, writer (her first novel comes out this month), and mother of two shares her tips for turning dreams into reality.

WHAT A DIFFERENCE A YEAR MAKES. When Alison Sweeney did her first shoot for SHAPE in early 2012, she had never posed for a magazine cover in a bikini. “I was so nervous about showing my body,” recalls Ali, who had struggled with her weight since she began appearing on the daytime soap Days of Our Lives at 16. Despite having successfully lost 30 pounds and going from a size 12 to a size 4, she couldn’t shake her insecurities. “I thought people might be judging me,” says the 36-year-old. “I was even self-conscious around my family. I wouldn’t wear a two-piece in my house without a towel over it.”

Fast-forward 12 months and it’s a whole new Ali who walks into the photo studio. Not only is her 5’4″ physique more toned than ever (check out her five total-body sculpting moves on page 38), she’s clearly far more at ease about striking a pose in the skimpiest of swimsuits. “Being in SHAPE changed my attitude about my body,” says the mother of Ben, 8, and Megan, 4. “It taught me to face my fears and come to terms with the fact that, while I may not have the best figure on the beach, I worked really hard for this and should feel confident! And now, to be asked back validates all of my efforts.

Being fit isn’t just a one-time-only, one-hit-wonder thing. This is truly my lifestyle.” Doing that cover wasn’t the first time Ali stepped outside her comfort zone, but it was certainly a very public display of how much she loves to push her boundaries. “I’m all about taking risks,” says the woman who in the past year has completed a marathon, four half marathons (her most recent was last month), and a triathlon. “And I love inspiring others to do the same.” So whether you’re looking to lose a few pounds, get a lot more physical, or write your next act, Ali’s four success strategies will guarantee that you reach your goals too!

1/Readjust your food attitude

Like many women in their 30s and older, Ah was raised on a carb-centric diet. “I remember thinking a macaroni salad with three green beans was good for you,” she says, laughing. She also regularly indulged in soda and desserts. That all changed in her early 20s, when a dental checkup turned up an unusually high number of cavities, and Ali’s dentist strongly urged her to cut back on sugar. “The results were amazing,” she says. “I dropped a couple of jeans sizes and stopped craving sweets.”

She shed the rest of the weight soon after joining The Biggest Loser six years ago. “That’s where I learned to eliminate processed foods,” she says, “and started making meals ‘as nature intended,’ with lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, complex carbs like quinoa, and lean protein like free-range chicken and organic beef. It really is true that we are what we eat. And I like to eat healthy.”

Of course, even the most nutritious diets can stand to be tweaked now and then. In 2010, Ali’s TBL costar Bob Harper suggested she try taking a break from cheese for two weeks in an effort to make her aware of how much extra fat she was consuming. Initially, Ali assumed the challenge would be a snap. “I didn’t think I ate much cheese, but I was wrong,” she says.

“It only took a day or two to realize I’d been adding cheese to almost everything—my eggs, my salads.” As a result of the experiment, Ali says she’s knocked out a lot of calories from her dishes. “Now I sprinkle a little feta or Parmesan on my food for an extra kick. Because they’re more intense than other varieties, you can use less and feel just as satisfied.”

2/Step up your game

Even though she’s truly hard-core when it comes to exercise—she loves to hike, bike, swim, and ski—early last year Ali decided to kick her normal workout routine up a few notches by training for her first marathon.

“In addition to regular circuit-training sessions, I incorporated some short and long runs into my schedule, until I eventually reached the 22-mile mark,” she says. “It was worth the effort. Running the entire 26.2 miles was such a huge achievement, and it only made me want to participate in more races.”

So last summer when a friend dared Ali to do a triathlon, saying no didn’t even occur to her. It turned out the most difficult part of the race, which consisted of a half-mile swim, an 18-mile bike ride, and a 4-mile run, was getting over her fear of the open water. “Sure, I practiced in my pool for half an hour twice a week,” says Ali, “but that didn’t prepare me for when I first stepped in the ocean. I was convinced I’d get eaten by a shark!” Ultimately, she completed the event unscathed and eager for new physical challenges. In fact, Ali is already training for another triathlon this fall. “I want to feel my workouts mean something and are part of a good forward momentum,” she says. “When I have a goal, like that race, and then actually cross the finish line, it’s so satisfying.”

3/ Open your mind

Writing was something else Ali made time for last year.

She had already published her popular guide for expectant mothers, The Mommy Diet, but was longing to try her hand at fiction. “For 20 years, I’ve been part of some wonderful storylines on Days,” she says.

“I yearned to be part of that process of sharing my own stories with other people, but as an actor, I didn’t have that outlet.” The result is her novel, The Star Attraction, a romantic tale about a Hollywood publicist and her handsome A-list client.

“It was so much fun to write,” says Ali. “Once I invented this character, the words just fell into place.”

And who would play the smart, sexy lead character if the book were made into a movie? “Ah, well, hmmm,” stammers the actress. “If that were to happen—and that’s a big if—I’d love to play her. Though I may be too old!”

Whether or not that’s true, Ali’s probably too busy to appear in the project anyway— because she’s already working on her next novel. “This one is so much harder than the first,” she admits. “But I honestly don’t mind. I like doing anything that engages me and pushes me in a whole new direction.”

4/ Be a little lazy

Ali’s overachiever status is obvious to anyone who follows her blog (alisonsweeney.com) or reads her tweets (she has more than 300,000 followers). “I am always on the go,” she says. “Juggling two jobs and two young kids doesn’t leave a lot of ‘me’ time, and that’s not a good thing.” For that reason, she made a goal this year to slow down and chill out for an entire hour each day.

For Ali, that’s more difficult than it sounds. “The other day I got home early from work and found myself completely alone in the house. The silence really unnerved me,” she says. “I tweeted something about being alone and got so many responses from other women saying, ‘Enjoy it—that never happens!’ ”

To ensure she takes her time-outs, Ali plans to schedule them in her calendar, the same way she does work, exercise, and family outings.

“I need to give relaxation the same respect as I do the other aspects of my life,” she says. “I’m still figuring out what I’m going to do. I may try meditation or yoga. I’ve also got a stack of old books I want to reread. Okay, clearly learning to unwind is still a work in progress!”

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