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Cover Model: A.J. Cook

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.

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