A.J. Cook woke up one morning about a year ago, walked into the bathroom, looked in the mirror and asked herself one question: “Whoa, who’s that person staring back at me?”
Granted, she has been many different characters in a successful acting career spanning more than 15 years — most recently (and currently) FBI Special Agent Jennifer Jareau on the hit show Criminal Minds, which just wrapped up its eighth season on CBS. But this was different. This was real. Cook, 34, says maybe it was some sort of pre-midlife crisis. She didn’t like the way she looked, she felt awful and she had very little energy.
“It just sort of hit me that I don’t like where I am right now,” Cook says. “I don’t feel good, and I feel like I’m starting to not look good, and I need to take those reins right now because I’m not getting any younger. I just decided to take control of my life, finally, in my 30s.”
A.J. Cook’s regular Pilates routine is a challenging 50-minute date with a “Performer” apparatus in a group class at RockIt Body Pilates studio in Manhattan Beach, Calif. But when she’s not able to get to the studio — because of in-town work or travel — here are a few of her favorite mat Pilates moves, no equipment or gym membership required.
Lie on your back with your knees and hips bent 90 degrees. (Your knees should be directly over your hips.) Lift your head and shoulders off the mat, extend your arms so they’re just above and parallel with the floor, and flex your neck so you’re looking straight ahead at your thighs, not up to the ceiling. From here, pump your arms up and down while keeping the rest of your body still and your abs engaged. As you do this, alternate inhaling and exhaling for five seconds each. Continue in this manner until you’ve pumped your arms up and down 100 times. For a more advanced version, straighten your legs and hold them at a 45-degree angle to the floor throughout the 100 pumps.
Sometimes where you start and where you end up isn’t premeditated — it just sort of happens. Cook was a self-described “carnivore” before looking in the mirror that one morning. Now, she’s essentially a vegan. A dancer from an early age and even a track-and-field athlete in high school, Cook had always been physically active, but her nutrition was sporadic. In her 20s and early 30s, she tried every weight-loss diet she could in classic “yo-yo” fashion. Her goal this time, however, wasn’t to lose weight. She just wanted to feel better, so she started by doing a cold-pressed juice cleanse.
“And the amount of energy I had after that cleanse was great because you’re getting so many nutrients and vitamins from the juice,” Cook says. “I did that for three days, and I felt so incredible that it sort of turned into a weeklong thing. Slowly I started eating fruits and vegetables and whole foods, and then I had no desire for meat or dairy, so I pretty much cut those out of my diet. I hesitate to call myself a vegan because if I wake up tomorrow and I feel like my body is telling me to eat a big, fat steak, I’m probably going to listen to it. But as of right now, I’m loving it and having insane energy. The best thing I did for myself is I stopped dieting and started listening to my body and looking at food as fuel.”
Cook’s other pillar for physical success has been a healthy obsession with Pilates. She does it every day she can — working around a busy filming schedule that sometimes entails 14-hour workdays and travel — at RockIt Body Pilates (rockitbodypilates.com), a boutique studio in Manhattan Beach, near her home in the Los Angeles area. Classes at RockIt Body consist of what Cook calls “souped-up” Pilates — 50-minute sessions employing a specialized piece of equipment called the Performer to enhance functional strength, in addition to flexibility and endurance, via resistance training.
“Because I work so much, when I work out I want it to count,” Cook says. “I want to check off all those boxes as far as toning and cardio, and this blends it all together. It’s a fast-moving Pilates routine, a full-body workout where your core is constantly engaged. So it gives you killer abs and a great butt back up where it needs to be. It’s sort of gotten me back to that body of a dancer, with long, lean muscles. You work a muscle really hard and then immediately stretch it all back out so it doesn’t get all bulky — because I tend to bulk up pretty easily with other workouts. I’ve been doing this routine for about a year, religiously, and it’s changed my body fairly quickly. I’m obsessed with it now. If I could be there every day doing it, I would. Unfortunately, my schedule doesn’t always work with me on that.”
When she’s not able to get to the Pilates studio, Cook will go for a run at the beach near her home, often with her family — husband Nathan Andersen and 4-year-old son Mekhai. Andersen is in great shape, too. He’s an avid CrossFitter and follower of the popular Paleo diet, which has been a motivating factor for Cook.
“One reason I started to take my body seriously is that I saw my husband killing it at CrossFit,” Cook says. “He looks amazing, and I’m thinking, ‘Man, I need to keep up with this guy!’ I have to get some kind of workout in at least three times a week. Otherwise, I just don’t feel right. If I can’t get to the Pilates studio, I’ll go for a run. And we’ve started doing yoga as a family. My son loves it. He’ll always ask, ‘Mommy, daddy, can we do yoga?’ We’re just a really active family. We don’t like to sit still for too long.”
If any image is more horrifying to Cook than her reflection in the mirror a year ago, it’s seeing herself in high definition. She and Andersen recently splurged on a state-of-the-art HDTV after owning their previous tube for close to 10 years. When Criminal Minds came on the new television for the first time, Cook exclaimed, “Turn it off, turn it off!”
“Thank goodness for HDTV,” she says, sarcastically. “It’s funny, whenever people would meet me they’d say, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re so pretty and so young in real life.’ I didn’t really get it, but now I do. I look so much older in HD.”
It would be naive to think that the only reason Cook eats healthy and works out is to feel better and keep up with her spouse. The reality is, looks are important when you’re trying to land and maintain a leading role on prime-time television — especially as a woman — so being fit and physically attractive obviously play in her favor. But being just a pretty face will only get an actor so far. Cook’s Jareau character on Criminal Minds has evolved over the years, becoming more physical.
Sit at the front edge of the mat, bend your knees and grab the front of your ankles with your hands. Round your lower back, sit back and straighten your legs until you’re balancing on your glutes. Your arms should be fully extended and still holding on to your ankles, with your legs spread so they’re about shoulder-width apart. From here, tuck your chin down toward your chest, inhale and roll back until your shoulder blades touch the mat. Immediately exhale, rock back in the opposite direction to the start position, open up the chest, then round the back and repeat the rolling movement. Repeat for eight to 10 reps.
“I got to kick down my first door this year,” Cook says, “and it was amazing! I’m a very physical person, so it’s fun to be able to infuse that into the character I play on TV. I want to be able to sprint faster than the boys down an alley with my gun out. I want to be able to jump a fence when I’m chasing a bad guy. I want to roundhouse-kick a guy in the head. I don’t want to have any limitations. If someone says I have a fight scene, I want to be able to do it.”
Kicking down a door, sprinting down an alley and jumping a fence are things Cook may not have been able to do a year or so ago — at least not for multiple takes — before her recent “health surge.” She had always looked to other people to learn about the next fad diet that would help her lose weight fast, disregarding the heavy toll it was taking on her body. Finally, instead of looking to others for answers, she looked to herself — and in the mirror.
“People warned me of that — of aging, of how one day I’ll look in the mirror and see some old person looking back at me,” Cook says. “So that’s been the motivation, the fuel behind this transition. I’m just trying to stay on top of it because I want to be on this Earth as long as I can. I want to be here for my son and live as fully as I possibly can and for as long as I can in a healthy way. That’s what that day was in the mirror. I think everyone needs to reach that point in their life where they say, ‘This is it. I’m doing it for real this time.’”
Lie facedown on the mat with your legs extended, arms bent, hands on top of one another and your forehead or chin resting on your hands. Keeping your stomach and pelvis in contact with the mat, raise your legs up with your feet a foot or so apart and toes pointed outward. From here, tap your heels together, then pull them apart, keeping your legs fully extended throughout. Continue tapping your heels in this fashion for 20 to 25 reps.