To evaluate if exhaustion after maximal exercise suppresses the immune system; ten healthy male oarsmen (maximal oxygen uptake, 5.7 +/- 0.2 l.min-1; mean and SE) performed a six minute "all-out" bout on a rowing ergometer (394 +/- 12 watt). Rowing increased the blood leucocyte count as reflected in the concentrations of lymphocytes, monocytes, and neutrophils. Two hours after rowing the leucocyte and neutrophil numbers remained elevated, while the lymphocyte count decreased below the prevalue. The concentrations of cluster designation CD3+ (pan T), CD4+ (T subset), CD8+ (T subset), CD19+ (B cells), and CD16+ natural killer (NK) cells increased during rowing with the elevation in CD16+ cells being sevenfold. Only the concentration of CD3+ and CD8+ cells decreased below prevalues two hours after exercise. The lymphokine activated killer (LAK) cell activity of blood mononuclear cells (BMNC), and the NK cell activity of BMNC (%lysis per fixed number of BMNC), either unstimulated or stimulated with interleukin-2, interferon-alfa or indomethacin, also increased in response to rowing, and returned to the prevalues after two hours. In contrast, the BMNC proliferative responses did not change significantly. The evaluation of NK and LAK cell activities, and the proliferative responses of BMNC suggest that six minute maximal exercise does not suppress the immune response during recovery, even when a large muscle mass is involved.