For A.J. Cook, having a baby was a game changer, and not only in the ways you’d expect. The addition of son Mekhai, now 5, made the busy actress’s life, well, busier. But it also revolutionized the way she thought about her body. “You give birth to this beautiful creature, and life has so much more meaning than whether or not you’re skinny enough or pretty enough,” she says.
Cook, 35, grew up as a competitive dancer. She started acting at age 17 and quickly landed big roles, including one of the sisters in 1999’s “The Virgin Suicides.” It was impossible not to worry about her body with Hollywood as a backdrop, but she’s learned to take care of herself with clean eating and running on the beach. “The best thing I ever did was I stopped dieting,” Cook says. Now, her motivation to stay fit is the good feeling that comes from treating herself right. That, and being able to keep up with Mekhai and her marathon-running husband.
Cook fits running and Pilates into long days on the set of “Criminal Minds,” where she fights crime as Supervisory Special Agent Jennifer “JJ” Jareau. Here, she shares how she learned to love running, how she rewards herself halfway through a workout (hint: it involves taking off clothes), and why eating a cupcake isn’t the end of the world.
Women’s Running: When did you first start running?
A.J. Cook: I’ve run all my life really, but just because it was a good way to get cardio in. I never enjoyed it. Just in the last year or so, I’ve come to love how I feel when I run. It’s that time where I just get to escape from everything—no phone, no computer, I’m not working, I just shut that side of my brain off and let the other side of my brain open up.
WR: Did you run as a kid?
AJC: When I was younger, I did track and field. I was a sprinter. I’ve never been a distance runner, but it’s always been this dream of mine to run a marathon.
WR: What changed to make you love running?
AJC: I think what changed is that my life got exponentially busier, and now I look forward to the time in the day where I get to escape. And the older I get, the more I value that I only have one body, and I’ve got to take good care of it.
WR: How often do you run?
AJC: I work out, at the very least, three times a week. It’s my drug. I like to do what I call “Pilates on crack,” because it’s cardio-infused. And running is so great because I can do it anywhere and at any time. We live right on the beach, so I sometimes run in the sand, which really takes running to a whole other level—it’s all those little muscles you didn’t know you had in your legs.
WR: Have you done any races?
AJC: I’ve run small 5Ks around the beach, but I’ve never done a marathon or half marathon. I’d like to work my way up to a half marathon. My husband’s side of the family is all marathoners, so I have a lot to live up to. Ideally, I’d like to check that off my bucket list one day.
WR: What do you like about running?
AJC: I love that you can make it as hard or easy as you want. If you really want to sweat, you can run really hard. Or if you want to go on a leisurely, let-your-mind-go run, it’s great for that too.
WR: What do you not like about running?
AJC: I used to despise running. It was so boring to me! But I needed to mature a little and understand what running should mean to me.
WR: Did you run while you were pregnant with your son?
AJC: Actually, I did. Toward the very end, I did a lot of brisk walking up and down the hills right near my house. I was humongous, ready to pop at any moment. People would drive by and say, “You’re trying to run this child out of your body!”
WR: Do you feel pressured about your body?
AJC: Of course, especially with what I do for a living. It goes with the territory. My whole life, it’s been this struggle where you feel like you don’t look good enough, you’re not skinny enough. But everything just shifted for me after having my son, and how I started to look at health and fitness completely changed. I don’t consider it a chore to eat properly and work out. I want to do it to be as healthy as I can for my son.
WR: What does that mean for your diet
AJC: At the end of the day, I want do what’s best for my body and best for my health. Do I eat chocolate? Yeah. Do I eat it every day? No. I just try to eat healthy as much as possible, and everything in moderation. And I’ve learned to listen to my body. If my body wants a steak, I probably need some iron. It’s amazing when you listen.
WR: What are your indulgences?
AJC: Salt and Vinegar Kettle Chips. Yeah, I’m kind of addicted to those. But my son loves frozen yogurt. I buy tubes of organic yogurt, and I just put them in the freezer, and viola, frozen yogurt!
WR: What advice do you have to get and stay in shape?
AJC: My best piece of advice is to stop dieting. Just because you have a bad day doesn’t mean the rest of the week has to be bad days. Pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start eating healthy again. It’s not the end of the world if you have some ice cream. Just eat more vegetables the next day. Don’t put so much pressure on yourself.
WR: What do you use to motivate yourself to keep running?
AJC: I use how I feel. When I’m working out and eating healthy, I feel amazing, and that to me tastes better than any piece of chocolate or candy. It’s just so much more fulfilling. I want to have energy so I can keep up with my son. That is my motivation.
WR: Do you have a favorite running outfit?
AJC: I usually wear leggings because I get cold, which is horrible to say because I’m a Canadian and live in California. And I’ll wear a sports bra with a shirt over top. That shirt inevitably gets taken off halfway through the run—my reward of “you made it halfway, you get to take your shirt off,” because then it’s so much more free.
WR: Do you have running goals for the future?
AJC: Small goals. Most people are like, “A marathon!” I’m like, “A half marathon!” I’ll start there then hopefully one day make it to a marathon.
What A.J. eats in a typical day…
“I’ll either do an egg-white omelet or an egg-white scramble with chicken, avocado and tomato. Or smoothies because it’s so easy and mornings are usually pretty chaotic.”
“A wrap with turkey or chicken, or a salad.”
“Salad with some type of protein, either fish or steak.”
“Maybe a piece of chocolate somewhere along the way!”