Physical activity favorably influences atherosclerosis risk factors but only a few studies in adults considered the time watching television (TV) as a measure of physical inactivity. We therefore determined in a population-based sample of 1778 subjects from the NHLBI Family Heart Study (FHS) whether leisure time physical activity and TV watching have independent or interactive associations with cardiovascular disease risk factors and carotid artery intima-media wall thickness (IMT). Subjects were free from diabetes mellitus and clinically-ascertained coronary artery disease and did not take lipid-lowering or antihypertensive drugs. Only 0.7 and 1.3% of the variance in leisure time physical activity in women and men, respectively, was explained by the amount of TV watching. Leisure time physical activity had a clearly favorable, and TV watching an unfavorable association with anthropometric measurements (BMI (body mass index), waist girth, waist-hip ratio, subscapular and triceps skinfold thickness). The odds ratio (95% CI) of being overweight was 0.41 (0.28-0.62) in women and 0.69 (0.46-1.04) in men in the highest quartile of leisure time physical activity compared to the lowest quartile. The odds ratio increased for increasing quartiles of TV watching to 2.12 (1.45-3.10) in women and 1.61 (1.07-2.43) in men. Watching TV only 1 h per day in women with a BMI of 30 kg/m2 and doing about 75 min of moderate exercise per week was associated with a BMI 1.8 kg/m2 lower than in women watching TV 3 h per day and doing the same amount of exercise. Those with twice the amount of moderate exercise and watching TV 1 h per day had a BMI 0.45 kg/m2 lower. Furthermore, leisure time physical activity was negatively associated with concentrations of triglycerides and positively with HDL cholesterol in both genders. TV watching was significantly positively associated with triglycerides and slightly negatively with HDL cholesterol in men. The observed associations of leisure time physical activity and TV watching with atherosclerosis risk factors were independent from each other. Finally, we analyzed the relation between leisure time physical activity, TV watching and the degree of IMT of the carotid arteries. Neither of these two measures was significantly associated with IMT. In summary, TV watching, in addition to leisure time physical activity, shows an independent association with obesity-related anthropometric measurements, HDL and triglycerides. Decreasing the amount of TV watching might be effective as a first step in reducing atherosclerosis risk factors, especially overweight.