The time course of heart rate (HR) and venous blood norepinephrine concentration [NE], as an expression of the sympathetic nervous activity (SNA), was studied in six sedentary young men during recovery from three periods of cycle ergometer exercise at 21% +/- 2.8%, 43% +/- 2.1% and 65% +/- 2.3% of VO2max respectively (mean +/- SE). The HR decreased mono-exponentially with tau values of 13.6 +/- 1.6 s, 32.7 +/- 5.6 s and 55.8 +/- 8.1 s respectively in the three periods of exercise. At the low exercise level no change in [NE] was found. At medium and high exercise intensity: (a) [NE] increased significantly at the 5th min of exercise (delta [NE] = 207.7 +/- 22.5 pg.ml-1 and 521.3 +/- 58.3 pg.ml-1 respectively); (b) after a time lag of 1 min [NE] decreased exponentially (tau = 87 s and 101 s respectively); (c) in the 1st min HR decreased about 35 beats.min-1; (d) from the 2nd to 5th min of recovery HR and [NE] were linearly related (100 pg.ml-1 delta [NE] congruent to 5 beats.min-1). In the 1st min of recovery, independent of the exercise intensity, the adjustment of HR appears to have been due mainly to the prompt restoration of vagal tone. The further decrease in HR toward the resting value could then be attributed to the return of SNA to the pre-exercise level.