To determine the factors in daily physical activity that influence the mineral density of the calcaneus, we recorded walking steps and the type and duration of exercise in 43 healthy 26-to 51-yr-old men. Areal (g/sq cm) calcaneal bone mineral density (CBMD) was measured by single energy x-ray densitometry. Subjects walked a mean (/- SD) of 7902(/-2534) steps per day or approximately 3.9(/-1.2) miles daily. Eight subjects reported no exercise activities. The remaining 35 subjects spent 143(2-772) (median and range) min/wk exercising. Twenty-eight men engaged in exercise activities that generate single leg peak vertical ground reaction forces (GRF(sub z)) of 2 or more body weights (high loaders, HL), and 15 reported exercise or daily activities that typically generate GRF(sub z) less than 1.5 body weights (low loaders, LL). CBMD was 12% higher in HL than LL (0.668 /- 0.074 g/sq cm vs 0.597 /- 0.062 g/sq cm, P less than 0.004). In the HL group, CBMD correlated to reported minutes of high load exercise (r = 0.41, P less than 0.03). CBMD was not related to the number of daily walking steps (N = 43, r = 0.03, NS). The results of this study support the concept that the dominant factor in daily physical activity relating to bone mineral density is the participation in site specific high loading activities, i.e., for the calcaneus, high calcaneal loads.