Neuropeptide Y (NPY) is a potent central appetite stimulant whose concentrations rise markedly in hypothalamic appetite-regulating regions in food-deprived rats. To determine whether increased energy expenditure also affects hypothalamic NPY, we studied the effects of intense physical exercise in rats (n = 10) running voluntarily on a large-diameter exercise wheel. Running was initiated by restricting food intake but stabilized at an average of 8 km/day when food intake was matched to that in 11 nonexercised, freely fed controls [23.9 +/- 1.9 (SE) g/day vs. 24.7 +/- 1.3 g/day; P > 0.5]. Running expended approximately 40% of daily energy intake, and weight gain was significantly inhibited. A separate group (n = 10) of nonexercised rats was food restricted (approximately 15 g/day) to match the weights of the exercised rats. The rats were killed after 40 days, when both experimental groups weighed 30% less than controls (P < 0.01). Hypothalamic NPY concentrations showed significant (P < 0.01) increases of 30-70% in specific regions (arcuate and dorsomedial nuclei and medial preoptic and lateral hypothalamic areas) in both the running and food-restricted groups, compared with controls. There were no significant differences between the two experimental groups in NPY concentrations in any hypothalamic region. These findings suggest that negative energy balance, whether caused by reduced energy intake or increased expenditure, increases hypothalamic NPYergic activity. As NPY acts on the hypothalamus to increase body weight, these data support the postulated homeostatic role of NPY in maintaining nutritional state.