Background Young women are at high risk for developing depression and participation in physical activity may prevent or treat the disorder. However, the influences on physical activity behaviors of young women with depression are not well understood. The aim of this study was to gather in-depth information about the correlates of physical activity among young women with and without depressive symptoms. Methods A sample of 40 young women (aged 18-30 years), 20 with depressive symptoms (assessed using the CES-D 10) and 20 without depressive symptoms participated in one-on-one semi-structured interviews. A social-ecological framework was used, focusing on the individual, social and physical environmental influences on physical activity. Thematic analyses were performed on transcribed interview data. Results The results indicated several key themes that were unique to women with depressive symptoms. These women more often described negative physical activity experiences during their youth, more barriers to physical activity, participating in more spontaneous than planned activity, lower self-efficacy for physical activity and being influenced by their friends' and family's inactivity. Conclusions Interventions designed to promote physical activity in this important target group should consider strategies to reduce/overcome early life negative experiences, engage support from family and friends and plan for activity in advance.