Sleep deprivation or partial sleep loss are common in work conditions as rotating shifts and prolonged work hours, in sustained military operations and in athletes competing in events after crossing several time zones or engaged in ultramarathon or triathlon events. Although it is well established that sleep loss has negative effects on mental performance, its effects on physical performance are equivocal. This review examines the latter question in light of recent studies published on this problem. Sleep deprivation of 30 to 72 hours does not affect cardiovascular and respiratory responses to exercise of varying intensity, or the aerobic and anaerobic performance capability of individuals. Muscle strength and electromechanical responses are also not affected. Time to exhaustion, however, is decreased by sleep deprivation. Although ratings of perceived exertion always increased during exercise in sleep-deprived (30 to 60 hours) subjects compared with normal sleep, this is not a reliable assessment of a subject's ability to perform physical work as the ratings of perceived exertion are dissociated from any cardiovascular changes in sleep deprivation. Examination of the various hormonal and metabolic parameters which have been measured in the studies reviewed reveals that the major metabolic perturbations accompanying sleep deprivation in humans are an increase in insulin resistance and a decrease in glucose tolerance. This may explain the reduction in observed time to exhaustion in sleep-deprived subjects. The role of growth hormone in mediating altered carbohydrate metabolism may be of particular relevance as to how sleep deprivation alters the supply of energy substrate to the muscle.