Exercise training has well documented beneficial effects in a variety of cardiac disorders. End stage renal disease patients present many cardiovascular complications and suffer from impaired exercise capacity. No study to date has adequately examined the cardiac responses to exercise training in renal patients on hemodialysis (HD). To determine the effects of an exercise rehabilitation program on the left ventricular function at rest and during submaximal effort, 38 end-stage renal disease patients on maintenance HD were randomised into three groups. Sixteen of them (group A--mean age 46.4+/-13.9 years), without clinical features of heart failure, participated in a 6-month supervised exercise renal rehabilitation program consisting of three weekly sessions of aerobic training, 10 (group B--mean age 51.4+/-12.5 years) followed a moderate exercise program at home, and the other 12 (group C--mean age 50.2+/-7.9 years) were not trained and remained as controls. The level of anemia and the HD prescription remained constant during the study. Fifteen sex- and age-matched sedentary individuals (group D--mean age 46.9+/-6.4 years) were the healthy controls. All subjects at the start and end of the program underwent physical examination, laboratory tests, treadmill exercise testing, M-mode and 2-D echocardiograms performed at rest and at peak of supine bicycle exercise. Left ventricular volumes (EDV, ESV) and mass (LVM) were measured and ejection fraction (EF), stroke volume index (SVI) and cardiac output index (COI) were calculated by standard formulae. The maximal oxygen consumption increased by 43% (P<0.001) and the exercise time by 33% (P<0.001) after training in group A, by 17% (P<0.001) and 14% (P<0.01), respectively, in B, and both remained unchanged in group C. Training in group A was also associated with an increase in LVIDd (from 52.1+/-6.4 to 54.0+/-6.1 mm, P<0.001) and LVM (226+/-67 to 240+/-84 g, P<0.05) at rest with no change noted in groups B and C. Following a 6-month exercise training in group A an increase was also found in the resting EF by 5% (P<0.01) and SVI by 14% (P<0.001). There was no change found in groups B and C. Supine bicycle exercise after training in group A was associated with an improvement in EF by 14% compared to the pre-training change (P<0.001), SVI by 14% (P<0.001) and COI by 73% (P<0.001). These changes from rest to submaximal exercise were less pronounced in group B following training at home. The untrained patients demonstrated no changes in LV systolic function over the 6-month period. These results demonstrate that intense exercise training improves LV systolic function at rest in HD patients; both intense and moderate physical training leads to enhanced cardiac performance during supine submaximal exercise.