Despite the maternal and infant morbidity associated with gestational diabetes mellitus (GDM), few modifiable risk factors have been identified. We explored the relation between recreational physical activity performed during the year before and during the first 20 weeks of pregnancy and the risk of GDM. 155 GDM cases and 386 normotensive, non-diabetic pregnant controls provided information about the type, intensity, frequency, and duration of physical activity performed during these time periods. Women who participated in any recreational physical activity during the first 20 weeks of pregnancy, as compared with inactive women, experienced a 48% reduction in risk of GDM (odds ratio [OR] = 0.52; 95% confidence interval [CI] 0.33-0.80). The number of hours spent performing recreational activities and the energy expended were related to a decrease in GDM risk. No clear patterns related to distance walked and pace of walking emerged. Daily stair climbing, when compared with no stair climbing, was associated with a 49-78% reduction in GDM risk (P for trend <0.011). Recreational physical activity performed during the year before the index pregnancy was also associated with statistically significant reductions in GDM risk, but women who engaged in physical activity during both time periods experienced the greatest reduction in risk (OR = 0.40; 95% CI 0.23-0.68). These data suggest that recreational physical activity performed before and/or during pregnancy is associated with a reduced risk of GDM.