Background It is of a public health interest to explore the relationship between different types of physical activity, sleep duration and diabetes/insulin resistance. However, little is known about such relationship. This study examines the single and joint associations of different types of physical activity, and sleep duration on insulin resistance among non-diabetic Chinese adults. Methods Data was collected from 1124 non-diabetic adults in Jiangsu Province from the China Health and Nutrition Survey (CHNS). Domestic, occupational, transportation and leisure physical activity were assessed in terms of metabolic equivalent (MET)-hours-per-week to account for both intensity and time spent. Sleep duration was categorized into three groups: ≤ 7 hours, 7-9 hours, and ≥ 9 hours. Insulin resistance was evaluated by the homeostasis model of assessment (HOMA) and defined as the highest quartile of HOMA. Results Total physical activity was mainly composed of occupational activity (75.1%), followed orderly by domestic, transportation and leisure time activity in both men and women. Total physical activity level was strongly negatively associated with fasting insulin and HOMA (p < 0.001). Among four types of physical activity, occupational activity was significantly negatively associated with HOMA after full adjustment (p < 0.05). Transportation activity was also negatively associated with HOMA when adjusted for age and gender (p = 0.028). Moreover, the combination of low physical activity and short sleep duration was associated with the highest odds of insulin resistance (adjusted OR = 3.26, 95% CI: 1.57-6.78), compared to those with high physical activity and adequate sleep duration. Conclusions Physical activity, mainly occupational physical activity, was negatively associated with insulin resistance in non-diabetic Chinese population, independently of potential confounders. There was a synergic effect of low physical activity and short sleep duration on insulin resistance.