Nitric oxide (NO) has been detected in the expiratory air of normal animals and human subjects. Recent experiments revealed that expiratory NO production rises during exercise and correlates well with O2 consumption (VO2) and heart rate. Whether physical conditioning influences expiratory NO output production remains unclear. In this study, NO concentration in expired gas was measured in 18 healthy male volunteers subdivided into three groups (sedentary, intermediate, and athletic) on the basis of the subjects' state of physical conditioning. Measurements were taken at rest and during two steady-state exercise bouts on a bicycle ergometer designed to elicit VO2 of 1 and 2 l/min with the athletes performing an additional bout at VO2 of 4 l/min. In the sedentary and intermediate groups, expired NO concentrations declined significantly with increasing VO2. In contrast, expired NO levels declined only slightly with increasing VO2 in the athletes. At a VO2 of 2 l/min, expired NO concentrations were significantly higher in the athletes compared with values in the other groups. When correlated with minute ventilation (VE), expired NO concentrations declined linearly with the increase in VE in sedentary and intermediate groups but not in the athletes. Only the athletes had a significant linear increase in NO output (expired NO x VE) with increasing VO2 (P < 0.001). These results support the notion that physical conditioning increases expiratory NO output during exercise. We speculate that the rise in expiratory NO output in the athletes might be due to increased vascular and/or epithelial production of NO. Enhanced vascular NO production may be the result of increased shear stress and/or upregulation of endothelial NO synthase gene expression.