This study examined the influence of exercise intensity upon the cortisol response of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. Specifically, we examined exercise at intensities of 40, 60, and 80% maximal oxygen uptake (VO2max) in an attempt to determine the intensity necessary to provoke an increase in circulating cortisol. Twelve active moderately trained men performed 30 min of exercise at intensities of 40, 60, and 80% of their VO2max, as well as a 30-min resting-control session involving no exercise on separate days. Confounding factors such as time of day--circadian rhythms, prior diet--activity patterns, psychological stress, and levels of exercise training were controlled. Cortisol and ACTH were assessed in blood collected immediately before (pre-) and after (post-) each experimental session. Statistical analysis involved repeated measures analysis of variance and Tukey post-hoc testing. The percent change in cortisol from pre- to post-sampling at each session was: resting-control, 40, 60, and 80% sessions (mean+/-SD) =-6.6+/-3.5%, +5.7+/-11.0%, +39.9+/-11.8%, and +83.1+/-18.5%, respectively. The 60% and 80% intensity magnitude of change was significantly greater than in the other sessions, as well as from one to another. The ACTH responses mirrored those of cortisol, but only the 80% exercise provoked a significant (p<0.05) increase pre- to post-exercise. The calculated changes in plasma volume for the resting-control, 40%, 60%, and 80% sessions were: +2.2+/-3.0%, -9.9+/-5.0%, -15.6+/-3.5%, and -17.2+/-3.3%, respectively. Collectively, the cortisol findings support the view that moderate to high intensity exercise provokes increases in circulating cortisol levels. These increases seem due to a combination of hemoconcentration and HPA axis stimulus (ACTH). In contrast, low intensity exercise (40%) does not result in significant increases in cortisol levels, but, once corrections for plasma volume reduction occurred and circadian factors were examined, low intensity exercise actually resulted in a reduction in circulating cortisol levels.