10/05/2009 at 01:00 AM EDT
learned a couple of new tricks while recovering from throat surgery this summer. She finally mastered texting, since—on doctor's orders—the chatty talk show host was not allowed to speak (at all!) for 2½ weeks. But this silence led to an even bigger discovery, as a bored Ray took up jogging. "I used to say I would never run unless I was being chased by someone with a gun," she says. "Now I'm a little obsessed with it!"
For good reason: Her new workout has proven figure-friendly, says Ray, 41, who in about eight weeks has dropped two jeans sizes and shaved two inches off her waist—all without giving up any of her food favorites. And although she insists she has "no idea" how many pounds she has lost ("I haven't been on a scale since I was 12"), Ray is well aware that her body has changed. "I feel more fit," she says, "and I have a little more energy—which is ridiculous because I have five jobs! So obviously I already have a good amount of energy."
Her successful media empire—which includes three television shows, 15 bestselling cookbooks, a self-titled monthly magazine and Nutrish, a charitable pet food line—certainly attests to that. But in late 2008, Ray found herself brought low by a benign cyst on one of her vocal cords. "I was so preoccupied with going to the doctor and having a pipe stuck down my throat once a week," recalls Ray. "[I would wonder,] 'Is it swollen this week? Is it not?'" "It was worrisome," adds her husband, John Cusimano, 42, a musician and entertainment lawyer. "She obviously needs her voice to do her job."
On July 7 Ray underwent outpatient surgery, and today her voice is completely healed. She even learned to enjoy "the quiet time, which I'd never had in my adult life," she says. Her enthusiasm for running also proved a revelation. "I used to think of the gym as a burden," she says. "I felt so much pressure to execute everything I have to do that I didn't want any more pressure."
Now six days a week, Ray wakes up to the smell of coffee brewing at 6 a.m. and heads with Cusimano to a gym in their Greenwich Village neighborhood to run three miles on the treadmill or to hit the elliptical machine.
The part of her life that remains unchanged, however, is Ray's relationship to food. "I don't categorize food as bad or a guilty pleasure," she says. Fortunately, growing up in an Italian family that followed what she calls a "largely Mediterranean diet" (heavy on the evoo, as her fans know), Ray learned to eat "a ton of salad and a ton of greens." She also enjoys pasta or steak for dinner, accompanied by "a glass of good wine," says Ray. "I would never, ever remove that from my life—the most essential part of my day is a proper dinner."
Before, however, "we'd stay up late having an extra bit of wine and deal with stuff at work," says Cusimano. "Now we go to bed at 10:30 or 11. We sleep better and psychologically feel like we can deal with our days better." And though Ray's priority isn't looking great on the red carpet—"I care about my general health," she says—her husband admits there are perks. "I'm psyched to get her on a beach," he says, "so I can see her in a bikini!"
FOR MORE ABOUT RACHAEL, GO TO PEOPLE.COM/RACHAEL_RAY