This study was designed to investigate the effect of exercise intensity on cardiorespiratory fitness and coronary heart disease risk factors. Maximum oxygen consumption (Vo(2 max)), lipid, lipoprotein, and fibrinogen concentrations were measured in 64 previously sedentary men before random allocation to a nonexercise control group, a moderate-intensity exercise group (three 400-kcal sessions per week at 60% of Vo(2 max)), or a high-intensity exercise group (three 400-kcal sessions per week at 80% of Vo(2 max)). Subjects were instructed to maintain their normal dietary habits, and training heart rates were represcribed after monthly fitness tests. Forty-two men finished the study. After 24 wk, Vo(2 max) increased by 0.38 +/- 0.14 l/min in the moderate-intensity group and by 0.55 +/- 0.27 l/min in the high-intensity group. Repeated-measures analysis of variance identified a significant interaction between monthly Vo(2 max) score and exercise group (F = 3.37, P < 0.05), indicating that Vo(2 max) responded differently to moderate- and high-intensity exercise. Trend analysis showed that total cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein cholesterol, non-high-density lipoprotein cholesterol, and fibrinogen concentrations changed favorably across control, moderate-intensity, and high-intensity groups. However, significant changes in total cholesterol (-0.55 +/- 0.81 mmol/l), low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (-0.52 +/- 0.80 mmol/l), and non-high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (-0.54 +/- 0.86 mmol/l) were only observed in the high-intensity group (all P < 0.05 vs. controls). These data suggest that high-intensity training is more effective in improving cardiorespiratory fitness than moderate-intensity training of equal energy cost. These data also suggest that changes in coronary heart disease risk factors are influenced by exercise intensity.