Increased resting ventilation (VE) and hypoxic and hypercapnic ventilatory responses occur during pregnancy in association with elevations in female hormones and metabolic rate. To determine whether increases in progestin, estrogen, and metabolic rate produced a rise in VE and hypoxic ventilatory response (HVR) similar in magnitude to that observed at full-term pregnancy, we studied 12 postmenopausal women after 1 wk of treatment with placebo, progestin (20 mg tid medroxyprogesterone acetate), estrogen (1.25 mg bid conjugated equine estrogens), and combined progestin and estrogen. Progestin alone or with estrogen raised VE at rest and decreased end-tidal PCO2 (PETCO2) by 3.9 +/- 0.8 and 3.3 +/- 0.6 Torr, respectively (both P less than 0.05), accounting for approximately one-fourth of the rise in VE and three-fourths of the PETCO2 reduction seen at full-term pregnancy. The addition of mild exercise sufficient to raise metabolic rate by 33-36% produced the remaining three-fourths of the rise in VE but no further decline in PETCO2. Combined progestin and estrogen raised HVR and hypercapnic ventilatory response more consistently than progestin alone and could account for one-half of the increase in HVR seen at full-term pregnancy. Mild exercise alone did not raise HVR, but when exercise was combined with progestin and estrogen administration, HVR rose by amounts equal to that seen at full-term pregnancy. We concluded that female hormones together with mild elevation in metabolic rate were likely responsible for the pregnancy-associated increases in VE and HVR.