Physical inactivity is an important contributor to non-communicable diseases in countries of high income, and increasingly so in those of low and middle income. Understanding why people are physically active or inactive contributes to evidence-based planning of public health interventions, because effective programmes will target factors known to cause inactivity. Research into correlates (factors associated with activity) or determinants (those with a causal relationship) has burgeoned in the past two decades, but has mostly focused on individual-level factors in high-income countries. It has shown that age, sex, health status, self-efficacy, and motivation are associated with physical activity. Ecological models take a broad view of health behaviour causation, with the social and physical environment included as contributors to physical inactivity, particularly those outside the health sector, such as urban planning, transportation systems, and parks and trails. New areas of determinants research have identified genetic factors contributing to the propensity to be physically active, and evolutionary factors and obesity that might predispose to inactivity, and have explored the longitudinal tracking of physical activity throughout life. An understanding of correlates and determinants, especially in countries of low and middle income, could reduce the effect of future epidemics of inactivity and contribute to effective global prevention of non-communicable diseases.