BACKGROUND: Urban containment policies attempt to manage the location, character, and timing of growth to support a variety of goals such as compact development, preservation of greenspace, and efficient use of infrastructure. Despite prior research evaluating the effects of urban containment policies on land use, housing, and transportation outcomes, the public health implications of these policies remain unexplored. This ecologic study examines relationships among urban containment policies, state adoption of growth-management legislation, and population levels of leisure and transportation-related physical activity in 63 large metropolitan statistical areas from 1990 to 2002. METHODS: Multiple data sources were combined, including surveys of urban containment policies, the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, the U.S. Census of Population, the National Resources Inventory, and the Texas Transportation Institute Urban Mobility Study. Mixed models were used to examine whether urban containment policies and state adoption of growth-management legislation were associated with population levels of leisure-time physical activity (LTPA) and walking/bicycling to work over time. RESULTS: Strong urban containment policies were associated with higher population levels of LTPA and walking/bicycling to work during the study period. Additionally, residents of states with legislation mandating urban growth boundaries reported significantly more minutes of LTPA/week compared to residents of states without such policies. Weak urban containment policies showed inconsistent relationships with physical activity. CONCLUSIONS: This study provides preliminary evidence that strong urban containment policies are associated with higher population levels of LTPA and active commuting. Future research should examine potential synergies among state, metropolitan, and local policy processes that may strengthen these relationships.