Questionnaires and a sub-maximal exercise test were used to assess occupational and leisure time physical activity as well as physical fitness in a standardized prospective study in 2,565 Belgian and Slovakian middle-aged healthy workers. Less than 5% of the subjects engaged in strenuous work requiring an energy expenditure above 31.5 kJ.min-1. One-third of the Belgians and 50% of the Slovakians reported no heavy leisure time activity during the preceding 12 months. Physical fitness, defined as the workload at heart rate 150 beats.min-1 (standardized for body weight), was significantly higher in Slovakians as compared to Belgians (1.52 +/- 0.28 W.kg-1 and 1.48 +/- 0.28 W.kg-1; P less than 0.001). Occupational physical activity in Belgians and heavy leisure time activity in Slovakians were independently related to fitness levels. However, each activity score explained less than 1% of the variance of physical fitness. We conclude that in these mainly sedentary, middle-aged subjects, fitness levels are independent from the usual physical activity patterns.