This paper investigates levels of engagement in physical activity (PA) among the total German working population and for specific subgroups. The first national health survey for the Federal Republic of Germany was conducted from October 1997 to March 1999. The following study is based on a representative net sample of 3,323 employed persons aged 18 to 69. Bivariate methods and multiple logistic regression analyses were used to investigate the relationship between PA and workplace and occupational factors in addition to social and lifestyle-specific correlates. Four out of 10 gainfully employed persons (39.2%) do not engage in sport. Those with physically strenuous jobs and frequent overtime work are significantly less likely to engage in leisure-time PA. Non-manual workers, and younger, unmarried workers are particularly likely to have an active lifestyle. Our study population did not correspond to the popular image of the recreational athlete as an abstinent, "ascetic" individual: The subgroups of non-smokers and teetotalers contained significantly fewer athletes than the corresponding reference groups. The present paper is the first to publish representative data on PA in the working population since German reunification in 1990. The data show that workers with a high risk of morbidity are those least likely to engage in leisure-time PA (manual workers with below-average educational qualifications from lower socioeconomic groups). The significant accumulation of socially depriving living conditions and lifestyle deficits among inactive subjects shows that one-off preventive measures intended to motivate sporting activity are likely to be ineffective in these subgroups of the population. We therefore advocate continuous exercise programs near the workplace involving exercise training suited to the particular occupation, dietary advice, relaxation techniques and occupational medical care.