In this study, exercise capacity was evaluated in patients with borderline and established, uncomplicated, essential hypertension as compared to normal subjects. To this aim, the response of blood pressure, heart rate and cardiac work to a multi-stage exercise test was investigated by analyzing the results of linear regression fitting of cardiovascular parameters (ie, heart rate, systolic blood pressure and rate-pressure product (RPP)) versus time of exercise. Compared to normal patients, both essential and borderline hypertensive patients had a shorter average duration of exercise test (ie, a decreased exercise capacity), always negative for transient myocardial ischemia. This was in spite of a mild increment of maximal RPP (+19% and +10% v normal patients, respectively). Reduction of exercise duration in borderline and established hypertensive patients was related to the higher RPP at rest (+26% and +56% related to normal patients, respectively) and to the steeper slopes (rates of increment) of heart rate systolic pressure and RPP during exercise. Interestingly, in the overall population of normal and hypertensive subjects, the slopes of heart rate and RPP were directly correlated with basal blood pressure. In conclusion, these data indicate a decreased exercise tolerance in both established and borderline hypertensive patients without documented myocardial ischemia. This abnormality, which appears to be due to a disproportional increment during exercise not only of systolic pressure but also of heart rate, could reflect abnormalities in the autonomic control of heart function.