It's impossible not to like Ali Sweeney. When we meet for breakfast, the actress, 37, is dressed in total jean mode. We're just up the street from the Los Angeles studio where she has been playing Sami Brady on “Days of Our Lives” for 21 years. (Yep, 21.) And that's in addition to hosting “The Biggest Loser.”
But lest you think she's one for staying put and sitting still, Ali—who recently announced she's leaving “Days”—just wrote a novel (her second), Scared Scriptless, out in June. "Like everything else in my life, I had a way to squeeze it in!" she says of writing the book in 30-minute increments. "I'd put on headphones in a crowded room while my kids played." Those kids are Ben, 8, and Megan, 5, with husband Dave Sanov, a highway patrol officer. Seriously, how does she get it all done and still seem this serene? Here are Ali's best-life strategies.
Spring-clean your diet
"No matter how healthy you are, you let things slide. So it's a really good idea to clean your diet and start fresh. For one week, eliminate sugars and sweeteners. It's like anything else—you start to build a tolerance and then you need more to get the same effect. This isn't to say your food should be bland. Buy fruits and vegetables that are in season, and use herbs and spices you really like."
Make fitness your friend
"My top health regret is all the years I spent looking at fitness as the enemy. I thought of it as a punishment. It wasn't until “The Biggest Loser” that I started seeing it as a reward. Find that switch in your own mind. In a busy life, it's a luxury going to the gym. But it's so much cheaper to take care of your body now than to pay the health bills later."
Don't think of fitness as an all-or-nothing proposition
"So you have limited time to exercise. That doesn't mean you have to do nothing. I'm guilty of this, too. But even if it's 10 minutes, while you're watching TV that night, do squats, lunges and push-ups during commercials. In your office, sit on a medicine ball at your computer for an unintentional core workout."
Dream away (then get concrete)
"My dad was an inspiration to me. He's creative but not in the traditional sense—he's in finance. For any idea I've ever had, my dad has always said, 'Let's make a plan.' I think the hardest thing for people who do have a dream is What are the steps that get me there? That's how I was taught. So for me it was like OK, you want to write a novel. What are the steps? To sell it, you're going to need a story. OK, we'll come up with a story. So instead of it being this big, insurmountable vision, you break it down into the little pieces that get you there. It's like the Shel Silverstein poem: She ate a whale, one bite at a time."
Make mealtimes matter
"In our family, we all make dinner together: The kids help me cook or set the table, and Dave is on the grill. And when someone's favorite song comes on, we'll stop and do a 'Dance break!' You either shout it out or someone grabs you and starts dancing, and Dave will have the BBQ tongs in one hand. I have videos of us just rocking out to Michael Jackson in our backyard."
Get your hands good and dirty
"I find if I'm not outside enough, it can add to my stress level. I go on hikes, and I do a lot of my running on trails rather than on streets. My perfect, happy day would be a combination of a couple of hours on set, getting a good workout in and then spending the afternoon in the backyard with my kids and just practicing baseball. I think it's so important to take advantage of nature, to get your hands dirty, to garden, to play at the beach. Be a part of nature. It's not to be treated with kid gloves. We're supposed to have fun in it."
Celebrate every last squat
"If you're waiting to be happy for when you're actually at your goal weight, that's a bummer for you. Enjoy the small milestones along the way: Enjoy the workout that day. Enjoy each healthy dinner. Enjoy the process and you'll achieve your goal sooner and better than you ever thought you would. Don't wait for it and be miserable because it hasn't happened yet. Enjoy getting there as much as the end result."
Try what terrifies you
"When I started to visualize my career early on, I saw myself in a specific way: I'm a very girl-next-door-type character. Then I got cast on “Days of Our Lives” as the villain. My character quickly became, like, persona non grata in Salem. [Laughs] She had this crazy set of scenes that would involve me having to play—I'm afraid to even say the words!—a sex kitten. Then I quickly became a mother on the show. So at 18, I was playing three things I didn't see myself as at all: maternal, a sex kitten and a nasty villain. I had to really learn to set aside any fears or self-consciousness and bully my way through it. Like This is not my strong suit, but I'm going to do this strip tease and give it my best shot! That was a great lesson—learning how to fake it 'til you make it. There is a weird confidence that comes from hitting your most insecure parts and getting through moments like that."
Take the anxiety out of eating
"People always ask me, 'What's your cheat food?' But I don't have one, because I don't live my life depriving myself, so I'm not desperate for my cheat day! I don't judge myself for every single meal or for eating something that's not perfect. When I take the pressure off myself each step of the way, the stakes aren't so high. When you relax a little bit, then you're not constantly craving things."
Remember that success is 99% perspiration
"I learned a great lesson from my mom. When I was a little kid, my mom put me in different classes, from ice-skating to karate. And I remember her always saying to me, 'It's not about whether or not you're really good at it. It's about showing your teacher that you're trying as hard as you can.' It's such a great lesson. So on “The Biggest Loser,” the number one thing that I root for is hard work. I relate to people who really want it. I know that the numbers on the scale sometimes don't reflect the effort. I just love and admire the ones who try."