OBJECTIVES: Plasma hormones at rest in patients with untreated severe congestive cardiac failure are similar to those occurring during heavy exercise in healthy people. This study examines the hypothesis that the neuroendocrine effects of exercise are modified in untreated congestive cardiac failure. DESIGN: The effect of lying, standing, upright exercise, and recovery on several plasma hormones was measured in healthy controls and 2 groups of patients with severe untreated heart failure. The level of exercise was the same in all groups and low enough to be within the capacity of patients with severe failure. PATIENTS: There were 12 healthy controls, 9 patients with untreated severe congestive cardiac failure caused by myocardial disease, and 12 patients with untreated constrictive pericarditis. SETTING: A tertiary referral centre in North India. RESULTS: Heart rate, noradrenaline, renin activity, aldosterone, cortisol, growth hormone and atrial natriuretic peptide (ANP) were higher in the 2 groups of patients than in the healthy controls during both rest and exercise (P < 0.01 for both comparisons). In general, the effects of this mild degree of exercise were no greater than those of standing. The increase in heart rate during exercise was greater in the group with constrictive pericarditis than in the controls (P = 0.04) and (non-significantly) in congestive heart failure. Apart from these differences the pattern of responses to standing and exercise was similar in the three groups. CONCLUSIONS: While there was evidence of a broad neuroendocrine activation in patients with congestive cardiac failure, the only abnormal increase during exercise (of marginal significance) was found for renin activity in those with myocardial disease. In patients with untreated congestive failure, a substantially normal endocrine response to exercise was superimposed on abnormal resting concentrations.