Cytokines are soluble glycoproteins that are produced by and mediate communication between and within immune and nonimmune cells, organs and organ systems throughout the body. Pro- and anti-inflammatory mediators constitute the inflammatory cytokines, which are modulated by various stimuli, including physical activity, trauma and infection. Physical activity affects local and systemic cytokine production at different levels, often exhibiting striking similarity to the cytokine response to trauma and infection. The present review examines the cytokine response to short term exercise stress, with an emphasis on the balance between pro- and anti-inflammatory mechanisms and modulation of both innate and specific immune parameters through cytokine regulation. The effects of long term exercise on cytokine responses and the possible impact on various facets of the immune system are also discussed, with reference to both cross-sectional and longitudinal studies of exercise training. Finally, the validity of using exercise as a model for trauma and sepsis is scruti- nised in the light of physiological changes, symptomatology and outcome, and limitations of the model are addressed. Further studies, examining the effect of exercise, trauma and infection on novel cytokines and cytokine systems are needed to elucidate the significance of cytokine regulation by physical activity and, more importantly, to clarify the health implications of short and long term physical activity with respect to overall immune function and resistance to infection.