We examined patterns of physical activity and other characteristics that might deter hypertension or delay all-cause mortality among university alumni, 1962-1985. Collegiate sports play did not alter hypertension incidence, nor did contemporary walking, stair-climbing, or light sports play among 5463 University of Pennsylvania alumni, 739 of whom developed hypertension. But vigorous sports play reduced hypertension incidence; and overweight, gain in weight, history of parental hypertension, or any combination of these, increased it. Among 819 hypertensive Pennsylvania alumni (138 died during follow-up), vigorous sports play had minimal influence on mortality; but freedom from overweight and cigarette smoking deferred death. Among 16,936 Harvard College alumni, of whom 2614 died during follow-up, lack of vigorous sports play, or presence of hypertension, cigarette smoking, and overweight increased risk of premature mortality, heightened by any combination of these adverse characteristics. Overall, we found an inverse relationship between vigorous sports participation and hypertension risk but a direct relationship between risk and weight-for-height, weight gain, or parental hypertension. With regard to all-cause mortality, cigarette smoking and hypertension were most hazardous for the individual; smoking and lack of vigorous recreational play were most hazardous for the alumnus population as a whole.