Thymic involution occurs in young adult male Wistar rats that have performed two runs to exhaustion (RTE) on a treadmill, separated by a 24-h rest period, but not after a single RTE. We were interested in determining whether programmed cell death (or apoptosis) is responsible for the corresponding decrease in T-cell numbers in the thymus. DNA fragmentation, which is an early feature of apoptosis and easily detected by agarose gel electrophoresis, was found in rat thymocytes after the second RTE (the duration of 1 RTE was approximately 5 h). It was also detected after a single RTE or after 2.5 h of running only, and the levels of DNA fragmentation were always roughly similar. In addition, DNA fragmentation was decreased in RU-486 vs. vehicle-treated rats that had run for 2.5 h. These results indicate that physical stress induces glucocorticoid receptor-mediated apoptosis of rat thymocytes. Because apoptosis is induced to similar levels during mild and severe physical stresses, some additional events must be associated to provoke thymic involution.