1. The relative contribution of the efferent components of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems to the heart rate (HR) response to dynamic physical exercise was evaluated in 23 normal males.
2. The dynamic exercise was performed on a bicycle ergometer at work loads of 25, 50 and 100 W, before and after pharmacological blockade with atropine (13 individuals) or propranolol (10 individuals).
3. Parasympathetic blockade significantly depressed the rapid HR response at the beginning of the exercise period at all levels of intensity, whereas sympathetic blockade only affected the slow-response phase (1–4 min), especially at the highest level of effort.
4. The present results suggest that the tachycardia evoked by dynamic exercise is mediated by a biphasic mechanism initially depending on rapid vagal release, which increases progressively with increasing effort. An increased sympathetic activity manifests itself in a more delayed manner, especially at the higher levels of activity.
5. Continuous monitoring of HR during the entire period of activity at different levels of intensity permits the utilization of dynamic exercise as a simple and non-invasive method for the functional evaluation of the two components of the autonomic nervous system of the heart.