Background: regular physical activity has been shown to have many health benefits. However, many older people are physically inactive.

Objective: to investigate why older people are reluctant to participate in leisure time physical activity and to identify strategies to encourage increased activity.

Design: cross-sectional survey.

Setting: 16 general practices in Dundee, Scotland.

Methods: 409 randomly selected older people (65–84 years) who lived independently were interviewed at home. Forty-six percent of those invited to take part were recruited into the study.

Results: levels of knowledge about the specific health benefits of physical activity were high. Almost all participants (95%) believed that physical activity was beneficial and 79% believed that they did enough to keep healthy. However, 36% did no leisure time physical activity and a further 17% did less than 2 hours per week. Regression modelling identified 11 factors that exerted significant independent effects on levels of leisure time physical activity. The most powerful deterrent was lack of interest (OR = 7.8). Other factors included lack of daily access to a car, shortness of breath, joint pain, dislike of going out alone or in the evening, perceived lack of fitness, lack of energy, doubting that exercise can lengthen life, not belonging to a group and doubting that meeting new people is beneficial.

Conclusions: increasing leisure time physical activities poses major challenges. Beliefs about desirable levels of activity in older people would need to be changed. Action would be needed to relieve physical symptoms and address fears about perceived ability to undertake physical activity. Finally, easily accessible facilities would be needed to encourage participation in physical activity.