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Alison Sweeney loves a challenge. Take last fall's Nautica Malibu Triathlon, which involved a half-mile swim in the Pacific. "I'm afraid of sharks, but my fear flew out the window as soon as I jumped into the ocean," Alison says. "The current kept pushing me to shore, but I didn't let myself panic, I just kept swimming until I made it to the final buoy" -- without spotting a single shark.
Whether it's racing in open water or dropping from a size 12 to a 4, the 36-year-old host of The Biggest Loser and star of Days of Our Lives isn't one to wimp out. "Pushing yourself to do the hard stuff makes you feel accomplished and inspires you to want more," Alison says.
Luckily, she has plenty to keep her busy. Besides filming Loser, competing in her first triathlon, and training for the upcoming Walt Disney World Half Marathon, Alison has just finished writing a novel and is already working on a second -- and she's about to start directing episodes of Days. Not to mention that she's the mom of two active kids, Ben, 7, and Megan, 4. "Even if my brain is telling me I can't do something, conquering my fitness goals has shown me I'm so much more capable than I think I am," Alison says.
But that wasn't always the case. A self-professed type A personality, Alison, in her quest for perfection, often prevented herself from trying new things. "If I couldn't be number one or go superfast, I'd give up and not do it at all," she admits. "But I'm learning I can have fun and be proud of myself, even if I'm not the best. Medium speed is okay too!"
Letting go of perfect has been liberating. "It's a positive cycle. You take care of your body, and the next thing you know, you're taking better care of your career and the people you love," Alison says. "With each new accomplishment, I think, Wow, what can I do next?" Read on to find out how she achieves success -- and how you can do the same.Your schedule is crazy. How do you stay on track with exercise?
I used to be one of those people who hated working out. It felt like such a chore. I had to learn that exercise isn't a punishment. My first breakthrough was Spinning class. I love the music, and you can get motivation from the people around you, but you do your own thing at the same time. Finding workouts I enjoy has allowed me to flip it in my head. Now I look forward to that time and the exercise high I feel afterward.Do you have a set routine?
I would love nothing more, but I can't because my schedule changes every day. I meet with my trainer once a week, and I aim to do cardio 45 to 50 minutes four or five days a week. I find it's best if I plan it out the night before so it's already built into my day.Okay, so share your secret: How do you fit it all in?
Sometimes I don't, but I take what I can get when I can get it. I'll do strength training in my dressing room between shoots, and I've been known to make business calls while I'm out jogging. I try to mute myself on Bluetooth so they can't hear me huffing and puffing, but I usually end up getting caught. Fortunately, people understand; they're usually jealous they aren't exercising too!
I'm a lifetime fan of all things Disney, so it's a great opportunity to take my kids and a cool way to see the park. It's also wonderful motivation during the holidays: I can't eat crappy food if I'm going to stick to my training schedule. I might actually plan a long run every January for the rest of my life, because it works!How do your kids feel about all the training you do?
After I ran the LA Marathon, my son said, "When I'm older, can I run with you, Mommy?" I love that I'm a role model and that my husband and I are setting the example that exercise is important in our lives.You've done a lot of races this year. What keeps you going back for more?
They make me focus on the achievement rather than on "I'm burning calories" or "I have to look fit for TV." When it's a race, I don't have a choice. I have to get that long run under my belt or I won't be able to finish. It scares you straight, but in a good way.What accomplishment are you proudest of?
Finishing the marathon. I had a meltdown at mile 21 and had to walk for a while. I had all these feelings of self-doubt. It was really hard to keep going, but I told myself, Whatever you do, don't stop. So I walked and walked, and the race volunteers believed in me. They were cheering, "Come on, Alison!" I realized I wasn't going to die, and I picked up my jog and completed what I started. The finish line was the most beautiful thing I'd ever laid eyes on.You struggled with your weight when you were younger. What healthy changes did you make to your diet?
I was a total sucker for both the fat-free and sugar-free crazes. I used not to eat breakfast in the morning because I thought it was just one less meal to worry about. When I started Biggest Loser, I wasn't eating enough and would compensate by consuming foods that weren't good for me. I really credit the show for introducing me to quinoa, lentils, and other healthy options that taste good. Now I love going to the farmers' market and then cooking a healthy dinner at home for my family. Instead of a big bowl of pasta and three spears of broccoli, I fill a bowl with vegetables and shrimp and add just a little rice or pasta to make it more satisfying.Do you sometimes still feel like a chubby person?
Those thought processes are hard to overcome, so that's definitely where Bob's and Jillian's mantras really do echo in my head: "That's an excuse; that's not who you are." It's important to take care of yourself. That includes eating healthier and learning not to beat yourself up when you make a mistake.Are you more body-confident today than you used to be?
One thing I've learned through fitness: I may not have the best body out there -- not even close -- but I worked my butt off, literally, for it, and it's okay if it's not as good as someone else's. This is what I've got, and I have to embrace it and be proud of it.How have your fitness achievements changed you?
Before, I felt intimidated, but now when opportunities come my way, I can jump in and say, "Yeah, let's do it!" The Biggest Loser crew has a softball team in an intramural league where we play other TV shows. I don't know much about softball, but I know I can have fun and be athletic.If you had two hours to yourself -- no kids or demands -- which would you choose: sleep, sex, or exercise?
It's terrible to admit, but I'd probably sleep. But if you let me pick two, sex definitely qualifies as exercise for me, so I think I could fit them all in!
Originally published in FITNESS magazine, January 2013.