Control of skeletal muscle blood flow during dynamic exercise: contribution of endothelium-derived nitric oxide

Sports Med. 1996 Feb;21(2):119-46. doi: 10.2165/00007256-199621020-00004.


Traditional explanations for the hyperaemia which accompanies exercise have invoked the 'metabolic theory' of vasodilation, whereby contractile activity in the active muscle gives rise to metabolic by-products which dilate vessels bathed in interstitial fluid. Whilst metabolites with vasodilator properties have been identified, this theory does not adequately explain the magnitude of hyperaemia observed in active skeletal muscle, principally because large increases in flow are dependent on dilation of 'feed' arteries which lie outside the tissue parenchyma and are not subjected to changes in the interstitial milieu. Coordinated resistance vessel dilation during exercise is therefore dependent on a signal which 'ascends' from the microvessels to the feed arteries located upstream. Recent studies of ascending vasodilation have concentrated on the possible contribution of the endothelium, a monolayer of flattened squamous cells which lie at the interface between the circulating blood and vascular wall. These cells are uniquely positioned to respond to changes in rheological and humoral conditions within the cardiovascular system, and to transduce these changes into vasoactive signals which regulate blood flow, vascular tone and arterial pressure. Endothelial cells produce nitric oxide (NO), a rapidly diffusing labile substance which relaxes adjacent vascular smooth muscle. NO is released basally and contributes to the regulation of vascular tone by acting as a functional antagonist to sympathetic neural constriction. In addition, NO is spontaneously released in response to deformation of the endothelial cell membrane, indicating that changes in pulsatile flow and wall shear stress are likely physiological stimuli. Since the dilation of microvessels in response to exercise increases blood flow through the upstream feed arteries, which subsequently dilate, one explanation for ascending vasodilation is that NO release is stimulated by flow-induced shear stress. Evidence that NO contributes to ascending vasodilation is reviewed, along with studies which indicate that NO mediates exercise hyperaemia, that physical conditioning upregulates NO production and that NO controls blood flow by modifying other physiological mechanisms.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Exercise / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Muscle, Skeletal / blood supply*
  • Nitric Oxide / biosynthesis
  • Nitric Oxide / physiology*
  • Oxygen Consumption
  • Regional Blood Flow
  • Vasodilation / physiology*


  • Nitric Oxide