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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.Geographies of physical activity have been critiqued for environmental determinism.Qualitative research on exercise and environment offers a potential antidote to this.To effectively inform public health agendas, qualitative research must centre equity.Public health critique and critical praxis are mutually necessary to affect change.Creative methods can help connect qualitative research to public health agendas.