The circulating blood normally contains no more than 1-2% of the body's population of leucocytes. The numbers and phenotypes of circulating leucocyte subsets can change dramatically during and immediately following exercise. The surface expression of adhesion molecules makes an important contribution to such responses by changing patterns of cell trafficking. Alterations in the surface expression of adhesion molecules could reflect a shedding of molecules, selective apoptosis or differential trafficking of cells with a particular phenotype, effects from mechanical deformation of the cytoplasm, active biochemical processes involving cytokines, catecholamines, glucocorticoids or other hormones, or changes in the induction of adhesion molecules. The expression of adhesion molecules changes with maturation and activation of leucocytes. Typically, mature cells express lower densities of L-selectin (CD62L), the homing receptor for secondary lymphoid organs, and higher densities of LFA-1 (CD11a), the molecule associated with trafficking to non-lymphoid reservoir sites. The neutrophils and natural killer cells that are mobilised during exercise also express high levels of Mac-1 (CD11b), a marker associated with cellular activation. Possibly, exercise demarginates older cells that are awaiting destruction in the spleen. Plasma concentrations of catecholamines rise dramatically with exercise, and there is growing evidence that catecholamines, acting through a cyclic adenosine monophosphate second messenger system, play an important role in modifying the surface expression of adhesion molecules. Analogous changes can be induced by other forms of stress that release catecholamines or by catecholamine infusion, and responses are blocked by beta(2)-blocking agents. Catecholamines also modify adherence and expression of adhesion molecules in vitro. Cell trafficking is modified by genetic deficiencies in the expression of adhesion molecules, but leucocyte responses to exercise and catecholamines are generally unaffected by splenectomy. A number of clinical conditions including atherogenesis and metaplasia are marked by an altered expression of adhesion molecules. The effects of exercise on these molecules could thus have important health implications.