Working It Out

by Rachel Lincoln Sarnoff

Champion athlete Laila Ali has gained new ground for women’s sports and become an ambassador for healthy living.
Laila Ali is never one to rest on her laurels. Last year, the four-time undefeated boxing world champion gained new ground for women’s sports, completing her tenure as president of the Women’s Sports Foundation and co-hosting CBS’ We Have to Talk, the first female sports show to appear on network television.
Ali is a true ambassador for healthy living. The former triathlete hosts the nationally syndicated All-In With Laila Ali, donates her time to the national nonprofits Healthy Child Healthy World and Feeding America, and is currently working on her second book, which will share her unique approach to health and fitness. An accomplished Food Network cooking enthusiast and champion of Chopped All-Stars, Ali’s new Late Nite Chef Fight can be seen on the FYI Network.
We caught up with her at her home in Los Angeles, which she shares with her husband, former NFL star Curtis Conway, and their two children.
You’re a professional athlete, television host, cooking enthusiast, motivational speaker and entrepreneur. Professionally, which role is most important to you right now?
The television hosting that I’ve been doing, because being on TV gives you a platform. As far as public speaking is concerned, that I can kind of schedule on my off time. And being a health and wellness, fitness person—well, that’s just who I am. It’s very natural. So it’s incorporated into what I do on television or what I’m speaking about—any press that I’m doing, the book that I’m working on. All of that is a part of who I am in my life.
How do you keep it all in balance?
There’s a lot going on. But for me, it’s about priorities. My family comes first and my career comes second. Sometimes I have to turn things down because I don’t want to be gone. My husband also works in television and he travels, too. Lately, I’ll have to fly out on Friday and my husband will be flying in on Friday. So I’ll call a friend or a babysitter—but I don’t want to have to get a nanny.
I keep it in perspective. A lot of moms—they do everything that I do, but they also work five days a week. They’re taking care of the house, doing laundry, preparing dinner for their kids, and helping them with homework. They might not even have a housekeeper once a week like I do. But in the morning they’re going to work, too.
So for me, I might have to go out of town for a few days and work, but the rest of the days I have emails and phone calls, but I’m home. I don’t complain.
As a mom you feel guilty sometimes. It’s not easy. But I work it out by just keeping my priorities in order. I just take it day by day.
[quote align=”center” color=”#999999″]“Once I knew what it felt like to be healthy, I never wanted to go back. Once you’re aware of how to eat, how to take care of yourself and why it’s so important, it’s always on your mind.”[/quote]
Your father, Muhammad Ali, is a legend. Did he inspire you to go into boxing?
I was aware that my father was a fighter, but I didn’t want to box myself until I saw women’s boxing on television when I was 17. I was at a friend’s house and we turned on the TV to watch a Mike Tyson fight and Christy Martin stepped into the ring. I didn’t know who she was, didn’t know who her opponent was, but I was like, “I didn’t know that women box. How did I not know this?” I got so excited. I told my friend, “I can do that.” And she said, “Yeah, you can do that!” And then her dad said, “Laila are you crazy? Those girls will knock your head off.”
I was in school full time and I had a nail salon. I was on a different path. The seed was planted but it took me a year to actually go and start training—I had my first fight three years later.
And the rest is history.
I guess. A lot of people think, “Her dad was a boxer. She grew up in the gym and she became one, too.” But it was totally unrelated to my father! Yes, my dad’s blood is in my veins—maybe something in me made me want to do it, because I’m his daughter? But in that moment, I did not feel like it was connected to my dad in any way.
Your book Reach! (Hyperion) was aimed at young women—just a bit older than your daughter is now. Why did you write it?
At the time that I started to box, many people were confused as to why I wanted to fight in the first place. They saw me as a pretty girl who was Muhammad Ali’s daughter and didn’t need to fight who was using boxing as a publicity stunt and really wanted to be a model.
I felt the need at the time to tell my story of why I wanted to fight—why I was able to fight, what made me the kind of person who could be a fighter in the first place—and share my story.
I didn’t have a silver spoon in my mouth. I’d been through a lot to get to the place where I was. And I thought it would be a good inspirational story for young girls to read. It was very honest and I was able to tell a lot of things that most people probably wouldn’t want to tell. But I thought that it would help more people than it hurt—talking about my dysfunctional childhood, the trouble that I got into and how I was able to get on track.
I’m not ashamed of the past. You don’t have to let your past define you. That’s something that I try to encourage people to remember. Any day you can wake up and become who you want to be. If you can see it in your mind, you can achieve it. But you have to believe in yourself.
Becoming who you want to be—is that idea part of the book that you’re working on now?
Yes! I’ve been an athlete now for so many years but before I started boxing I wasn’t into health, I wasn’t into wellness. And I learned so much from the sport—so much about fitness and so much about myself.
Once I knew what it felt like to be healthy, I never wanted to go back. Once you’re aware of how to eat and how to take care of yourself and why it’s so important, it’s always on your mind.
So I’ve made a conscious decision to live a healthy lifestyle. And through the years, I’ve encouraged others to do the same. As I’m going around the country speaking—or on my Facebook page—people ask me questions. And I realize how many people still aren’t educated on a lot of basic information.
We are in such a crisis in the United States because of poor nutrition, poor health and lifestyle choices—the way we eat, not exercising, depending on the doctor, environmental pollution and things that we have. I want to use my platform to educate and inspire people to take control of their own health. That’s what the book is about.

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Photo credits: Allen Cooley Photography/ Hair: Kim Kimble/Make Up: Zena Shteysel

How do you stay healthy when you’re traveling?
I try to get as much rest as I can, and to eat healthy. The easiest thing to do when you’re on the road is to eat really plain—often, you think you’re getting something really healthy and it’s not.
So the cleanest way that I can eat is to ask for exactly what I want: steamed veggies, grilled plain skinless chicken. It’s really boring. But that’s pretty much it.
Your work with the nonprofit Healthy Child Healthy World focuses on helping parents reduce toxic chemicals and create healthier environments for children. Has this always been important to you?
The issue became important once I had children. Not that it wasn’t important for me, but I just wasn’t aware. When you become a mother and you get the books and research online, you learn about not eating certain foods and not using certain chemicals. And it sparked my interest. So I took it a step further, did more research, and that’s how I became introduced to Healthy Child Healthy World.
There are so many chemicals in products that are supposed to be safe. And it really makes you upset because why are these chemicals in the products in the first place? It seems like we would want to put our best foot forward when it comes to our children, but at the end of the day it always comes down to the money and profit.
I think that kids deserve the best start in life. Children are more susceptible to health problems that are caused by toxic chemicals. This stuff harms everyone—not just children. But children are more susceptible. And it’s our job to protect them.

Laila’s natural health and beauty essential?

“Pink sea salt. I mix it with olive oil and use it as a body scrub. I put it in the bath; use it as a saline solution when my nose is stuffed up. I even drink it—it gives you all the minerals that you need.”

Laila Ali’s On-the-Go 20-Minute Workout

For me, working out means going to the gym, working up a hard sweat, running for 45 minutes. But sometimes, when I’m traveling, I don’t have that kind of time. Or I’ll get to my hotel and the gym will be closed.
So I created a Workout Bag that I can take with me—it has a jump rope, resistance bands and a big rubber band that you put around your upper thighs for squats. And this way, I can do my workout in my room. I’m trying to be better about just getting 20 minutes in, if I can’t do the full sweat out.
This is a high-intensity, no rest, metabolism-boosting, calorie-burning workout that you can do anywhere!
3 minutes jump rope or jumping jacks
25 modified push-ups
25 squats
Repeat three times. Follow with five minutes of continuous abdominal exercises such as bicycles, leg lifts and sit-ups.

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