BACKGROUND: Many patients with chronic illness are limited in their physical activities. This systematic review evaluates the content and format of patient-reported outcome (PRO) questionnaires that measure physical activity in elderly and chronically ill populations. METHODS: Questionnaires were identified by a systematic literature search of electronic databases (Medline, Embase, PsychINFO & CINAHL), hand searches (reference sections and PROQOLID database) and expert input. A qualitative analysis was conducted to assess the content and format of the questionnaires and a Venn diagram was produced to illustrate this. Each stage of the review process was conducted by at least two independent reviewers. RESULTS: 104 questionnaires fulfilled our criteria. From these, 182 physical activity domains and 1965 items were extracted. Initial qualitative analysis of the domains found 11 categories. Further synthesis of the domains found 4 broad categories: 'physical activity related to general activities and mobility', 'physical activity related to activities of daily living', 'physical activity related to work, social or leisure time activities', and '(disease-specific) symptoms related to physical activity'. The Venn diagram showed that no questionnaires covered all 4 categories and that the '(disease-specific) symptoms related to physical activity' category was often not combined with the other categories. CONCLUSIONS: A large number of questionnaires with a broad range of physical activity content were identified. Although the content could be broadly organised, there was no consensus on the content and format of physical activity PRO questionnaires in elderly and chronically ill populations. Nevertheless, this systematic review will help investigators to select a physical activity PRO questionnaire that best serves their research question and context.