Introduction: There is increasing evidence to support the benefits of physical activity on cognition in older adults. This paper describes (i) the attitudes, beliefs and barriers towards physical activity of older adults with and without cognitive impairment and (ii) their opinion of the attributes of the ideal physical activity program. Methods: Thematic analysis of focus groups and individual interviews with 50 older adults with no cognitive impairment, subjective memory complaints, mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer's disease was performed. Results: Consistent with previous research in cognitively intact older adults, most participants, irrespective of cognitive status, had a positive attitude towards physical activity and believed it was beneficial both generally and for cognition. There was a preference for physical activity programs to be suggested by advertising and general practitioners (GPs), undertaken in a group setting, and beliefs that they should be tailored to individual's needs and preferences, and should be affordable according to their income. Participants with cognitive impairment cited specific barriers including "memory" and "lack of companion" as well as preferring "accessible" settings and "simple/light/safe" activities. Discussion: These findings provide useful data, particularly from participants with cognitive impairment, with whom there has been little research to date. This could contribute to efforts to translate the growing research evidence of the benefits of physical activity for brain health into effective community programs. © 2012 Wiley Publishing Asia Pty Ltd.