We analyzed nitrate, a major stable end product of nitric oxide (NO) metabolism in vivo in plasma and urine from groups of healthy subjects with different working capacities. Resting plasma nitrate was higher in athletic subjects than in nonathletic controls [45 +/- 2 vs. 34 +/- 2 (SE) microM; P < 0.01]. In other subjects, both the resting plasma nitrate level (r = 0.53; P < 0.01) and the urinary excretion of nitrate at rest (r = 0.46; P < 0.01) correlated to the subjects' peak work rates, as determined by bicycle ergometry. Two hours of physical exercise elevated plasma nitrate by 18 +/- 4 (P < 0.01) and 16 +/- 6% (P < 0.01), respectively, in athletes and nonathletes, compared with resting nitrate before exercise. We conclude that physical fitness and formation of NO at rest are positively linked to each other. Furthermore, a single session of exercise elicits an acute elevation of NO formation. The observed positive relation between physical exercise and NO formation may help to explain the beneficial effects of physical exercise on cardiovascular health.