Background The relationship between physical activity, disease severity, health status and prognosis in patients with COPD has not been systematically assessed. Our aim was to identify and summarise studies assessing associations between physical activity and its determinants and/or outcomes in patients with COPD and to develop a conceptual model for physical activity in COPD. Methods We conducted a systematic search of four databases (Medline, Embase, CINAHL and Psychinfo) prior to November 2012. Teams of two reviewers independently selected articles, extracted data and used the Grading of Recommendations Assessment, Development, and Evaluation (GRADE) to assess quality of evidence. Results 86 studies were included: 59 were focused on determinants, 23 on outcomes and 4 on both. Hyperinflation, exercise capacity, dyspnoea, previous exacerbations, gas exchange, systemic inflammation, quality of life and self-efficacy were consistently related to physical activity, but often based on cross-sectional studies and low-quality evidence. Results from studies of pharmacological and non-pharmacological treatments were inconsistent and the quality of evidence was low to very low. As outcomes, COPD exacerbations and mortality were consistently associated with low levels of physical activity based on moderate quality evidence. Physical activity was associated with other outcomes such as dyspnoea, health-related quality of life, exercise capacity and FEV1 but based on cross-sectional studies and low to very low quality evidence. Conclusions Physical activity level in COPD is consistently associated with mortality and exacerbations, but there is poor evidence about determinants of physical activity, including the impact of treatment.