August 04, 2014 12:00 PM

PEOPLE Exclusive

No one can question Alison Sweeney’s work ethic. For the past two decades, the actress, who plays fan favorite Sami Brady on NBC’s Days of Our Lives, was up at 5 a.m., often clocking 12-hour days five days a week on the show’s Burbank set. And that was just her day job. Sweeney is also the host of NBC’s The Biggest Loser and the author of two novels about show business. “I’ve always been willing to work hard,” says Sweeney, 37, who is enjoying some rare peace at the home she shares in the Hollywood Hills with her husband, Dave Sanov, and their two kids. “I love what I do, and I’m passionate about it,” the actress reflects as she curls up on the couch to enjoy a glass of red wine. “I’d want my epitaph to be ‘Ali Sweeney: She worked hard.’ ”

But there comes a time when the grind gets to be too much. In January Sweeney announced her retirement from Days in order to spend more time with her two children, Ben, 9, and Megan, 5. On May 23 she shot her final scenes. Since then she’s been enjoying a new life as an almost-stay-at-home mom. (A season of The Biggest Loser usually takes up three days a week four months out of the year.) “There were other things I wanted to do and see. I had a bunch of good reasons, and I decided it was finally the right time. But it’s been really sad,” admits Sweeney, who held back tears during her last week shooting and then let them flow when producers surprised her with a send-off party. “I’m going to miss the people and this job that I loved. [But] I know that this is the right decision for my family.”

Sweeney became a working actress at 4 and landed the role of town bad girl on Days when she was 16. Her conniving character was left at the altar twice (and was wed five times), escaped death row, masqueraded as a man and was even accused of treason. “I remember the set producer Fran teaching me how to walk in high heels,” she says with a laugh. “Days of Our Lives was almost my entire adult life.” Her decision to retire from the fictional town of Salem came as a shocker to husband Dave, 41. “I never thought that she would actually leave,” says the California highway patrol officer, who married Sweeney in 2000. “She’s still going to be waking up at 5:30 in the morning in a panic, thinking she’s late for work.”

But for Sweeney the decision was years in the making. She added Loser to her already hectic work schedule seven years ago. After a while she noticed it was taking a toll on her kids. “Ben would wake up really early just so he could have breakfast with me before I went to work, and that sat with me,” Sweeney says with a look of sadness. “I’d like to be there for them and not feel like I have nine other things going on in my head. Committing to two full-time jobs and being a wife and mom has been challenging and exhausting. It’s been weighing on me for a long time.”

When she first told Dave she wanted to leave, “I was thrilled, actually ecstatic,” he says. And the kids “were jumping up and down. They don’t watch Days. But knowing the character of ‘Mom’ will actually be taking them to school in the mornings is supercool.” Her die-hard fans weren’t nearly as enthusiastic. “Someone wrote me, ‘You playing Sami is as American as apple pie. It’s like telling me there’s no more baseball!’ ” says Sweeney. “I don’t even know how to respond.” When she told friend and castmate Kristian Alfonso the news, “I said, ‘What do you mean? No!’ ” recalls Alfonso. “Of course I understood once she explained her reasoning.”

So far, she says, she isn’t missing the giant pile of Days scripts that once sat on her nightstand. “It feels crazy,” she says of her new free time. “I’m like, ‘I think I’ll go work out.’ It’s whatever I want to do right now.” And aside from refereeing family tickle sessions, Sweeney’s keeping busy with writing. Her newest novel, the aptly named Scared Scriptless, hit stores in June. And she’s revving up for season 16 of Loser.

Outspoken about her own struggle with her weight through the years, Sweeney says the fitness reality show helps keep her focused. “I learn about pushing myself every season,” she says. “Just knowing that the trainers there are going to see me keeps me in check.” Last season’s big controversy surrounding ultrathin winner Rachel Frederickson touched her personally. “I can sympathize with how people felt,” says Sweeney of the incident, which saw star trainer Jillian Michaels leave in its aftermath. “But,” she says, “our rules have always been about trying to help the contestants be as healthy as possible. And when fans come up to me and say, ‘I work out because of your show,’ that makes me feel like we’re part of the solution. I look to the good of what we do.”

When it comes to that, Sweeney practices what she preaches. “I try to eat really healthy all of the time. Processed foods are a no-go for me.” But that doesn’t mean she won’t indulge. “I work a glass of wine into my calorie count,” she says of her favorite treat. For a recent Mother’s Day present, husband Dave built her a custom wine tap in their kitchen. “I don’t torture myself,” Sweeney says of her diet. “It’s all about a nice balance for me.”

She employs the same method with her little ones. “My kids know it’s important to eat healthy. I give them very small portions, and if they want more, they ask.” Sweeney rewards them not with cookies and candy but “with time on the iPad or a toy they want,” like the toy bow and arrow Ben shoots around in the backyard as his sister dances nearby.

With Mom’s new, looser schedule, the family’s looking forward to doing something they’ve never done: “We’ll finally be able to take vacations,” Dave says with a big smile. Before, “there was never a break,” he says, “just a week here or there around Christmas. It will be nice traveling to distant locations and enjoying some family time.” It’s a huge transition. “I’m taking a leap of faith,” says Sweeney, who hopes to pursue new, less intensive projects one day soon. “I’m stepping off a cliff and hoping there’s a net there to catch me.” But after decades onscreen, “there’s a confidence I’ve found in myself that I decided to believe in.” And she’s not alone. “Dave and I are a team, and we make our decisions together as a family,” she says. “That’s what’s most important.”

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