Recorded in early 1981, it first rose to number one on the Billboard Hot 100 in America in November 1981 and stayed there for 10 weeks, until near the end of January 1982. In terms of chart placement, it was the most popular single of her career in the U.S., as well as her final number-one (to date). Billboard ranked it as the number one pop single of 1982 (since the chart year for 1982 actually began in November 1981), and it was also the most successful song on the Hot 100 during the 1980s. The guitar solo was performed by Steve Lukather.
The single, slightly edgier than she had been known for in the past (such as her songs from Grease and her country-pop ballad "I Honestly Love You"), proved to be immensely popular both in America and in the United Kingdom, despite the fact that the song was censored and even banned by some radio stations; due to its sexual content, for example the line: "There's nothing left to talk about unless it's horizontally", in spite of Newton-John's status as the reigning queen of soft-rock music at the time, "Physical" peaked at only number twenty-nine on the AC chart (its follow-up, the slightly softer-edged "Make a Move on Me," found more acceptance at AC radio and went to number six AC as well as number five pop). The song was a big dance hit, crossed over to the Billboard R&B chart peaking at #28 there, and spawned a music video.
In the United Kingdom the single was not nearly as massive a success as in America, but still became a big hit, reaching #7. It also certified Silver.
The controversial music video that was released to promote the song featured Newton-John in a gym with well-built men in the last half. Some of the scenes have sexual subtext, such as the shower scene or when Olivia rubs herself on the men.
The video featured a lusty Olivia, dressed in a tight leotard, as a gym teacher trying to make several overweight men healthy. She repeatedly tries to make the men lose weight, but her plans fail and she leaves the room to take a shower. Suddenly, the men work out on their own, and they transform into muscular attractive men. In one part, one muscular man glances at his overweight self. Olivia is shocked when she sees this, and starts to flirt with them. At the end, two of the men secretly go out, holding hands, implying they are gay. Olivia is surprised to see this and as two more of the men leave with their arms around each other, she discovers the last of the overweight men is straight and they go off to play tennis together. The gym setting may have been partly an attempt to divert attention from the overt sexual connotations of the term "physical". This was further emphasized by the twist comedy ending of the video, when the transformed men who are now oblivious to Newton-John's advances are ultimately revealed to be gay (this was also a source of controversy; MTV frequently cut the ending when it aired the video, and the sometimes sensuous nature of the video also led to it being banned outright by some broadcasters in Canada and the United Kingdom).
Billboard ranked the song at #6 on its All Time Top 100 and #1 on Top 50 Sexiest Songs Of All Time.
The revamped bossa nova version of the song was released on the 2002 Olivia duet album (2) as a bonus track; this version replaces the original in latest tours of Newton-John. A Newton-John duet with Jane Lynch was displayed in the episode "Bad Reputation" of the television series Glee.
Most recently, in 2010, Matthew Wilkening of AOL Radio ranked the song at #39 on the list of the 100 Worst Songs Ever, stating that "An entire generation's leg-warmered, pastel spandex shame is laid bare in just under four minutes."
The instrumental version of the song featured in a 1984 advert for the Talbot Samba car on British television.
In 2007, Swedish clothing company WeSC released an album of new covers of "Physical" by 12 different artists, including Cat5, Doomington, Booty Cologne featuring ADL, The Black Ghosts, Lisa Loud & Kriss Darang featuring Hollie Cook, Timbuktu & Chords, Caged Baby, Pink Pioneers, The Glimmers, Blonde from Fargo, and Sara Lumholdt (a former member of Swedish pop group A*Teens now going under the stage name "Sara Love"). The album was titled Let's Get Physical with WeSC.
Dr. Demento assistant SuLu recorded "(I Gotta Get A) Physical" as a commentary about a typical doctor's office.