Glucocorticoids (GC) play an important role in the treatment of inflammatory diseases like asthma. However, in selected patients a relative resistance to GC has been reported. Recently, it has been suggested that GC sensitivity of peripheral blood leucocytes may be regulated in a dynamic fashion during exercise, in association with activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. The aim of the present study was to explore changes in the GC sensitivity of cytokine production by leucocytes following strenuous exercise by well trained oarsmen. These changes were studied using lipopolysaccharide (LPS)-induced and anti-CD2/anti-CD28 MoAb-stimulated cytokine release in whole blood and its modulation by dexamethasone. Following exercise, significant decreases in LPS-induced release of IL-6, tumour necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-alpha) and IL-10 and anti-CD2/anti-CD28 MoAb-stimulated secretion of interferon-gamma (IFN-gamma) were observed. In addition, the inhibitory effect of dexamethasone on both IL-6 and TNF-alpha secretion was significantly reduced following exercise, whereas that on IL-10 and IFN-gamma release was not affected. These exercise-induced changes were accompanied by activation of the HPA axis, as indicated by an increase in circulating adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) levels immediately following exercise. The results from the present study suggest that GC sensitivity of whole blood cytokine release can be regulated in a dynamic fashion and that this can be assessed using an ex vivo stimulation assay. Moreover, since dexamethasone responsiveness of anti-CD2/anti-CD28 MoAb-induced IFN-gamma secretion in whole blood is not affected by exercise, it may suggest that exercise differentially affects monocytes and lymphocytes. The dynamic regulation of steroid responsiveness of leucocytes, as observed in the present study, could have important consequences for the effectiveness of GC treatment in inflammatory diseases.