OBJECTIVE: To examine the association between physical activity in early pregnancy and risk of pre-eclampsia. DESIGN: Prospective cohort. SETTING: Denmark. POPULATION: A total of 85,139 pregnant Danish women, recruited between 1996 and 2002. METHODS: The authors assessed leisure time physical activity in first trimester by a telephone interview and categorised women a priori into seven groups: 0 (reference), 1-44, 45-74, 75-149, 150-269, 270-419 and 420+ minutes/week. Pre-eclampsia diagnoses were extracted from the Danish National Patient Registry. A number of potential confounders were adjusted for by logistic regression. MAIN OUTCOME MEASURES: Pre-eclampsia and severe pre-eclampsia. RESULTS: The two highest physical activity levels were associated with increased risk of severe pre-eclampsia compared with the nonexercising group, with adjusted odds ratios of 1.65 (95% CI: 1.11-2.43) and 1.78 (95% CI: 1.07-2.95), whereas more moderate levels of physical activity (1-270 minutes/week) had no statistically significant association with risk of pre-eclampsia (total n = 85,139). CONCLUSIONS: We were unable to document a protective effect of leisure time physical activity against pre-eclampsia. Our data even suggest that leisure time physical activity exceeding 270 minutes/week in first trimester may increase risk of severe pre-eclampsia.