This study investigates the association between leisure-time physical activity and commuting-related physical activity and high blood pressure among participants in the Brazilian Longitudinal Study of Adult Health (ELSA-Brasil). Physical activity was assessed through application of the International Physical Activity Questionnaire, particularly the domains addressing leisure and transportation. We used the World Health Organization's definition (⩾150 min per week of moderate activities or 75 min per week of vigorous activities) to establish three categories: active, insufficiently active and inactive. Hypertension was defined as systolic/diastolic blood pressure of >140/90 mm Hg or use of antihypertensive medications. From a universe of 15 105 participants, we analysed 13 857 subjects without previous cardiovascular diseases. The association between physical activity and hypertension was obtained using Poisson regression with adjustment for age, race, education, income, body mass index, diabetes and sodium and alcohol intake. Men who were active during leisure time had a multivariate prevalence ratio (95% confidence interval) of 0.84 (0.77-0.92) for hypertension compared with inactive men. For women, the prevalence ratio of active vs inactive during leisure time was 0.86 (0.79-0.95). However, this protective effect of leisure-time physical activity was not observed among men and women with diabetes or obese women. The association found between commuting-related physical activity and hypertension was not detected among men, and the prevalence ratio for women who were active during commuting time compared with inactive women was 1.11 (1.01-1.21). In conclusion, leisure-time physical activity was protective against hypertension, and commuting-related physical activity was associated with high blood pressure among women.