Patients with sick sinus syndrome have abnormalities of the sinoatrial node. We have measured the heart rate response to exercise in 7 patients with sick sinus syndrome without significant associated heart disease (group A) mean age 53.4 years, and compared this with 7 'normal' patients who were age-matched to within 5 years (group B), and 7 younger, well-trained subjects (group C). All underwent maximal treadmill exercise. Although maximum oxygen consumption (VO2max), 1/min per kg, in group A was not significantly different from group B (23.8 +/- 4.7 vs 19.9 +/- 0.8, mean +/- SE) maximum heart rate, beats/min, in group A was significantly lower than in group B (124 +/- 8.9 vs 163 +/- 3.7, P less than 0.001). At the end of 3 minutes of Bruce Stage I exercise, group A patients had a heart rate less than 130/minute (95% confidence level), whereas group B patients had heart rates greater than 134/minute. VO2 was plotted against heart rate (HR). Patients in group A had a significantly lower slope (deltaHR 5.20 +/- 0.33/delta1 ml VO2/kg per min, P less than 0.001). There was no significant difference in the slopes between groups A and C. On exercise patients with sick sinus syndrome have a normal VO2, but a reduced heart rate response as compared with age-matched normal patients. This abnormal heart rate response to the physiological stimulus of exercise may be of help in the evaluation of patients with sick sinus syndrome who do not have significant underlying heart disease.