OBJECTIVE--The aim was to describe the sex and socioeconomic differences in patterns of physical activity at work and in leisure time of men and women aged 36 years, and to investigate factors in childhood and adolescence which predict high rates of participation in sports and recreational activities in later life. DESIGN--Data collected in childhood, adolescence, and at 36 years on members of a national prospective birth cohort study were used. SETTING--The population sample was resident in England, Scotland, and Wales. SUBJECTS--A stratified sample of about 3500 men and women was studied regularly from birth until 43 years. MEASUREMENTS AND MAIN RESULTS--More men than women reported high rates of sports and recreational activities, gardening, and do-it-yourself. In contrast women reported higher rates of bicycling and walking. Higher levels of education were associated with frequent participation in sports. Individuals often engaged in one type of activity without necessarily engaging in other types. Those who were most active in sport had been above average at sports in school, more outgoing socially in adolescence, had fewer health problems in childhood, were better educated, and had more mothers with a secondary education than those who were less active. CONCLUSIONS--Studies that examine the relationship between physical activity and chronic disease should consider a broad range of pursuits rather than extrapolating from only one area of physical activity, and in their explanations should take account of the possible role of childhood characteristics. The findings suggest the importance of developing skills and habits in childhood as well as of encouraging healthier exercise habits in adults who may have had few opportunities or low motivation previously.