BACKGROUND: While there is good evidence to suggest an inverse relation of physical activity and cardiorespiratory fitness with coronary heart disease (CHD) in middle-aged men and women, much less is known about this association in older adults. The purpose of this paper was to explore the relation of physical activity and cardiorespiratory fitness with CHD in older adults by reviewing relevant studies. METHODS: Publications were identified in two ways: i) conducting a PUBMED search from its inception in 1966 until January 2001; and ii) scrutinizing the reference sections of identified papers. RESULTS: Ten studies relating physical activity and two relating cardiorespiratory fitness in older people to CHD met the inclusion criteria. With one exception, the studies were observational in nature and the majority of these were of prospective cohort design. Most studies featured men only. Of the eleven studies that presented data on older men, eight reported an inverse relation between physical activity or cardiorespiratory fitness and CHD, and statistical significance was seen in five of these. There were too few data on older women to draw clear conclusions regarding the association in this group. CONCLUSIONS: This review suggests that, in older adult men, physical activity and cardiorespiratory fitness are inversely related to CHD risk. This association is unlikely to be attributable to reverse causality or confounding. Except where such advice is contraindicated, older adult men may benefit from physical activity in terms of reduced CHD risk.