We previously proposed 5'-AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK) dephosphorylation within immune cells as an intracellular mechanism linking exercise and immunosuppression. In this study, AMPK phosphorylation underwent transient (<1 h) decreases (53.8+/-7.2% basal) immediately after exercise (45 min of cycling at 70% VO2max) in a cohort of 16 adult male participants. Similar effects were seen with running. However, because exercise-induced inactivation of AMPK was previously shown to occur in an AMP-independent manner, the means by which AMPK is inactivated in this context is not yet clear. To investigate the hypothesis that exercise-induced inactivation of AMPK is mediated via signaling mechanisms distinct from changes in cellular AMP-to-ATP ratios, reactive oxygen species (ROS) and intracellular Ca2+ signaling were investigated in mononuclear cells before and after exercise and in cultured monocytic MM6 cells. In in vitro studies, treatment with an antioxidant (ascorbic acid, 4 h, 50 microM) decreased MM6 cell intracellular ROS levels (88.0+/-5.2% basal) and induced dephosphorylation of AMPK (44.7+/-17.6% basal). By analogy, the fact that exercise decreased mononuclear cell ROS content (32.8+/-16.6% basal), possibly due to downregulation (43.4+/-8.0% basal) of mRNA for NOX2, the catalytic subunit of the cytoplasmic ROS-generating enzyme NADPH oxidase, may provide an explanation for the AMPK-dephosphorylating effect of exercise. In contrast, exercise-induced Ca2+ signaling events did not seem to be coupled to changes in AMPK activity. Thus we propose that the exercise-induced decreases in both intracellular ROS and AMPK phosphorylation seen in this study constitute evidence supporting a role for ROS in controlling AMPK, and hence immune function, in the context of exercise-induced immunosuppression.