The objective of this study was to examine the mechanisms by which physical activity affects the menstrual cycle. Women with high, medium, and low levels of physical activity were compared for menstrual function, physical characteristics, and urinary and serum levels of luteinizing hormone, follicle-stimulating hormone, prolactin, estradiol-17 beta, and 2-hydroxyestrone. None of the physical characteristics other than age and muscle area were significantly different in the three groups. The percentage of body fat did not appear to be a factor in the amenorrhea induced by strenuous exercise, as the percent of body fat in all three groups was less than 22%. The group of athletes under strenuous exercise which correlated with oligomenorrhea had decreased serum levels of luteinizing hormone, prolactin, and estradiol-17 beta but elevated levels of 2-hydroxyestrone. These data suggest that anovulatory cycles are correlated with the amount of exercise and increased levels of catechol estrogens. Catecholamines and beta-endorphin elevated by exercise may interact to suppress luteinizing hormone release at the hypothalamic pituitary axis.