Abstract Background In the Mexican population metabolic syndrome (MS) is highly prevalent. It is well documented that regular physical activity (PA) prevents coronary diseases, type 2 diabetes and MS. Most studies of PA have focused on moderate-vigorous leisure-time activity, because it involves higher energy expenditures, increase physical fitness, and decrease the risk of MS. However, for most people it is difficult to get a significant amount of PA from only moderately-vigorous leisure activity, so workplace activity may be an option for working populations, because, although may not be as vigorous in terms of cardio-respiratory efforts, it comprises a considerable proportion of the total daily activity with important energy expenditure. Since studies have also documented that different types and intensity of daily PA, including low-intensity, seem to confer important health benefits such as prevent MS, we sought to assess the impact of different amounts of leisure-time and workplace activities, including low-intensity level on MS prevention, in a sample of urban Mexican adults. Methods The study population consisted of 5118 employees and their relatives, aged 20 to 70 years, who were enrolled in the baseline evaluation of a cohort study. MS was assessed according to the criteria of the National Cholesterol Education Program, ATP III and physical activity with a validated self-administered questionnaire. Associations between physical activity and MS risk were assessed with multivariate logistic regression models. Results The prevalence of the components of MS in the study population were: high glucose levels 14.2%, high triglycerides 40.9%, high blood pressure 20.4%, greater than healthful waist circumference 43.2% and low-high density lipoprotein 76.9%. The prevalence of MS was 24.4%; 25.3% in men and 21.8% in women. MS risk was reduced among men (OR 0.72; 95%CI 0.57–0.95) and women (OR 0.78; 95%CI 0.64–0.94) who reported an amount of ≥30 minutes/day of leisure-time activity, and among women who reported an amount of ≥3 hours/day of workplace activity (OR 0.75; 95%CI 0.59–0.96). Conclusion Our results indicate that both leisure-time and workplace activity at different intensity levels, including low-intensity significantly reduce the risk of MS. This finding highlights the need for more recommendations regarding the specific amount and intensity of leisure-time and workplace activity needed to prevent MS.