The dynamic relationship between 'spontaneous' fluctuations in arterial blood pressure (BP) and heart rate (HR) is increasingly being used to provide an estimate of resting cardiac baroreflex sensitivity. Given the ease of use and clinical utility, spontaneous methods are now also being used to examine cardiac baroreflex sensitivity in distinct subject groups during various laboratory stressors and tasks encountered during daily life, such as physical activity. However, the utility of such spontaneous measures to estimate cardiac baroreflex function during exercise remains unclear, particularly when comparing groups. Therefore, we tested the ability of spontaneous indices to detect age-related differences in cardiac baroreflex function during dynamic exercise. Beat-to-beat HR and BP were measured in eighteen healthy young subjects (24 +/- 1 years) and sixteen healthy middle-aged subjects (59 +/- 1 years) at rest and during steady-state leg cycling. Estimates of spontaneous cardiac baroreflex sensitivity using the sequence technique (G(SEQ)) and low-frequency transfer function gain (G(TF)) were compared with the operating point (G(OP)) and maximal gain (G(MAX)) of the full carotid-cardiac baroreflex function curve. At rest G(SEQ), G(TF), G(OP) and G(MAX) were all significantly lower in older subjects. During moderate-intensity steady-state exercise no differences were observed in G(SEQ) and G(TF) (older 0.26 +/- 0.03 beats min(-1) mmHg(-1) versus younger 0.32 +/- 0.04 beats min(-1) mmHg(-1); P > 0.05), whereas G(OP) and G(MAX) (older -0.21 +/- 0.02 beats min(-1) mmHg(-1) versus younger -0.39 +/- 0.03 beats min(-1) mmHg(-1); P <0.05) remained lower in older subjects. These data indicate that spontaneous measures of cardiac baroreflex sensitivity alone provide limited information when comparing age-groups during exercise, which makes genuine differences in baroreflex function difficult to identify.