In this commentary, I respond to the special section in Health & Place (vol. 46) on “Exercise and environment: new qualitative work to link popular practice and public health” edited by Hitchings and Latham. I argue that if qualitative research is to effectively inform public health policy and practice it cannot ignore the fact that physical activity participation is inequitable. Without building in a critical equity lens, geographers risk perpetuating the “inequality paradox”—that is, the potential for population health interventions to inadvertently exacerbate health inequalities. Related to this, I challenge the editors’ assumption that geographers’ critiques of public health approaches to physical activity and our applied efforts to foster physical activity participation are mutually exclusive endeavours. Rather, I argue they are mutually necessary within a social justice agenda. Finally, I close this commentary by offering ways forward for qualitative research on exercise and environment to connect with public health agendas and inform interventions.