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Alison Sweeney has no idea she’s a fitness icon. In fact, when I ask her how it feels to be a role model for strong, healthy women, she seems genuinely shocked. “I didn’t know that I was one! Thank you!” she exclaims.
The effervescent actress is just as humble about her other accomplishments. Sweeney has appeared on Days of Our Lives for more than 20 years, playing the vindictive Sami Brady, a woman who seems the polar opposite of the warm and cheerful star in almost every way. Along the way, she’s also appeared on the small screen in Friends, Las Vegas and American Dreams.
Today, prime-time audiences know Sweeney as host of The Biggest Loser, a role she’s held since 2007. The actress says the offer was a huge surprise career-wise—but a perfect fit personally. Sweeney has been famously criticized for being average-sized (overweight by television standards). She’s admitted to crash dieting in her 20s and has gone through public weight gains and losses after the birth of her two children.
While Sweeney changes lives as The Biggest Loser host, the show has also changed her, teaching her to be confident in her own strength. By focusing on fitness, not a number on the scale, she’s now, at 36, in the best shape of her life. “I’m really proud to maybe be a good example of someone who can turn it around and get to a healthier place,” she says.
The show has also inspired her to run her first marathon. When she cheered on contestants from the sidelines, Sweeney realized she could—and wanted to—run one too. Now on top of the 26.2-mile feat, she has more half marathons than she can count and a triathlon under her belt.
The energetic star somehow manages to fit in intensive training while filming two shows, working with charity organizations, writing a novel and being a loving mother and wife. Sweeney bubbles with excitement as she talks at a mile-a-minute pace about running, her work and how she’s built her confidence along with her leg muscles…
You ran the Los Angeles Marathon, your first, last year. Why did you decide to run it?
We’ve hosted a lot of them with The Biggest Loser. I’ve stood at the finish line and waved people across and saw the pride and achievement on their faces. Until being a part of the show, I didn’t think I would be able to do a marathon. I thought it was something only athletes and “real runners” could do. To see that an average person can just start training and do something like that, I felt challenged and wanted to try.
What was the experience like?
I’d been a person who just worked out on a treadmill, so learning to run outside was something new for me. Then finding that I loved running outside was something new for me too! Race day was so special—and also the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It was so hard. You can’t overstate the importance of volunteers. Every orange slice or Gatorade someone hands you—you feel so supported. Crossing the finish line was a life-changing experience.
How did you find time for training?
I just had to make the best of it. I couldn’t stick to a very firm regimen because of my production schedule and being a mom. I allowed myself to do the best I could. I thought, It’s okay I don’t want to win, I just want to finish!
Do you think you’ll do another one?
I would love to, but I don’t know if I’d do it again while in production of both shows. I’m so proud that I did it, but it was a bit overwhelming for me.
When did you start running?
In 2008, I had started running long distances and was all about training for the marathon, but I got really bad runner’s knee. At that time, I didn’t know what was wrong, I just knew I couldn’t run more than five minutes without excruciating pain. It was devastating. I thought, I’m never going to be able to run again! Finally, Apolo Ohno came to “The Biggest Loser” and was telling me his story of training for the marathon [and getting injured]. He described his symptoms, and it was exactly what I had dealt with. I managed to stretch out my IT band, and work through the pain. I’ve been running ever since!
What are your favorite places to run?
I love to run in Griffith Park in Los Angeles, where there’s a nice track, so I don’t have to run on cement. I also love running in Runyon Canyon, the boardwalk in Santa Monica and Mulholland.
Does anyone ever recognize you when you’re running?
There’s something nice about the community of runners. People have always been really respectful that I’ve got my momentum going, so they just wave and say, “Hi,” and go on their way, and I go on my way.
Do you run alone or with other people?
My schedule is so tricky that I usually end up running alone because I just run whenever I have a free minute. When I can, I do plan to run with my friends. Another actress at Days of Our Lives Kate Mansi and I have run together a couple of times. I love that.
You’ve become an icon for strong, fit women. Does that feel like a lot of pressure?
I’m not a fitness guru. I’m still learning. But I try to be realistic about my goals, and I have the feeling that if I can do it, others can too. I am really proud to be an example of someone who got herself to a healthier place. I used to diet a lot when I was younger. I had all these crazy goals about wanting to be a certain dress size. When I finally stopped worrying about all that and focused instead on being healthy and fit doing competitive things like running, I lost weight. It’s easier to have a body I’m proud of, because I stopped worrying about the scale.
Do you feel pressure to look a certain way?
I really don’t. Obviously, you can’t help but feel a little pressure in Hollywood, knowing people are taking your picture. But at the end of the day, I know I’m fit, I know I’m healthy and I know I have incredible endurance. Running a marathon gave me confidence about what my body is capable of. It helps me feel better about the body-image issues, because I know my body is in shape.
Your children, Ben and Megan, are now 8 and 4. Did you deal with pressure to lose baby weight quickly after they were born?
After having a baby, you’re incredibly vulnerable. You have all this excess weight and you are going through hormonal changes. This all happens while you’re trying to take care of a new person. Pressure was coming at me, but I handled it the best I could. I tried to stay fit for as long as I could before the baby was born and found my way back to my own body. It takes a long time.
What makes you feel healthy?
A good workout. I can always tell how my body is feeling based on my run. If I’m about to get sick, I feel it. If I didn’t eat right last night, I feel it. Running is a great arbiter of where my fitness is and where my health is.
What would you say to a woman who’s out of shape and who wants to run but might feel embarrassed?
You’ll feel so much better after you’ve done it! Make sure you’re wearing an outfit that gives you confidence in yourself. It will keep you going. I think people who make the mistake of wearing baggy, ill-fitting clothes are more likely to give up on their fitness attempts quicker than those who invest in legit workout gear. You’ll be showing off your new body in no time.
What do you do to maintain body confidence?
I’m really proud of how I look because it reflects the work I put into my fitness. It translates to looking my personal best, and that’s good enough for me. ■