Abstract Background To date no work has differentiated the effects of age, period, and cohort on physical activity (PA) among Chinese adults, while also considering biological, behavioral, economic, and environmental factors over time. Methods We used data from the China Health and Nutrition Survey (CHNS) between 1991 and 2011 (20 years). The outcomes of interest are metabolic equivalent of task (MET) hours per week from work and domestic activities. Age, individual characteristics, household size, asset ownership, urbanization were included as covariates. Analyses for adult (≥20y) males (n = 29,343) and females (n = 31,094) was conducted to explicitly assess differences in PA due to age vs period effects, and implicitly assess differences by cohorts due to the period-specific experiences across individuals of varying ages. Results The mean age of the sample rose from 41.31 to 50.8 years and PA decreased from 427.75 ± 264.35 MET hours per week (MET-hr/wk) in 1991 to 245.99 ± 206.65 MET-hr/wk in 2011, with much steeper declines for women compared to men. For both genders, we found non-linear decreases in PA with age over time. Controlling for age effects, negative period effects on PA were observed in each survey year, and were substantial from 1993 to 2000 for males and from 1993 to 2011 for females. The interaction between survey year and age (P < 0.05) were observed from 2004 to 2011. Higher community urbanicity, vehicle ownership, TV and computer ownership, overweight and obese, higher education served as negative predictors. Bicycle ownership, bigger household size, non-professional jobs, being married and having more children (for women) were positive predictors of PA (P < 0.05). Furthermore, at any given age, individuals who were younger at baseline had higher mean PA compared with individuals older at baseline. Conclusion This study followed a large cohort of adults over a significant portion of their lives. Strong age and secular trends were observed, resulting in an increasing number of participants who have or are likely to lower their PA levels. These trends suggest that tackling the rapid PA decline among its population is of high priority for China’s public health outlook as its population ages and continues to experience significant economic and environmental changes.