Background Between 30-60% of older people experience functional decline after hospitalisation which can be accelerated by inactivity in hospital. Family or caregivers can positively affect activity levels of hospitalised older people. We aimed to explore the perceptions of hospitalised older people and their family or caregivers towards physical activity and exercise during an admission to a Specialist Geriatric Ward in an acute hospital Methods A qualitative approach was taken, using semi-structured interviews with eleven patient participants and semi-structured focus groups with four family or caregivers. Thematic analysis was utilised to identify key themes. Results Three similar themes emerged from both groups: 1) personal feelings towards exercise or inactivity, 2) the role family/caregivers could play in facilitating exercise and 3) the role of hospital staff, which all impacted on participants' perceptions towards exercise in hospital. Personal influences including self-efficacy and appreciation of the importance of exercise resulted in more positive views towards activity. There was an acute awareness among some family of the dangers of inactivity. Uncertainty existed regarding the role family or caregivers have in increasing patient activity levels. Some patient participants believed family involvement may increase activity levels, while others thought it would compromise their independence. Both groups identified a need for more patient-specific information regarding activity in hospital. Both groups favoured hospital staff encouraging rather than restricting activity and felt that more doctors encouraging exercise would be helpful. The need for more opportunities for meaningful activity in hospital was highlighted. Conclusion Physical activity and exercise were perceived as important during hospital admission. Hospital staff should facilitate and enable increased opportunities for patient activity, and empower family or caregiver involvement in this where appropriate.