Voluntary running in mice and forced treadmill running in rats have been shown to increase the amount of proliferating cells in the hippocampus. Little is known as yet about the mechanisms involved in these processes. It is well known that the endogenous opioid system is affected during running and other forms of physical exercise. In this study, we evaluated the involvement of the endogenous opioids in the regulation of hippocampal proliferation in non-running and voluntary running rats. Nine days of wheel running was compared with non-running in spontaneously hypertensive rats (SHR), a rat strain known to run voluntarily. On the last 2 days of the experimental period all rats received two daily injections of the opioid receptor antagonists naltrexone or naltrindole together with injections of bromodeoxyuridine to label dividing cells. Brain sections from the running rats showed approximately a five-fold increase in newly generated cells in the hippocampus, and this increase was partly reduced by naltrexone but not by naltrindole. By contrast, both naltrexone and naltrindole increased hippocampal proliferation in non-running rats. In non-running rats the administration of naltrexone decreased corticosterone levels and adrenal gland weights, whereas no significant effects on these parameters could be detected for naltrindole. However, adrenal gland weights were increased in naltrexone- but not in naltrindole-administered running rats. In addition, in voluntary running rats there was a three-fold increase in the hippocampal levels of Met-enkephalin-Arg-Phe compared with non-runners, indicating an increase in opioid activity in the hippocampus during running. These data suggest an involvement of endogenous opioids in the regulation of hippocampal proliferation in non-running rats, probably through hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis modulation. During voluntary running in SHR naltrexone altered hippocampal proliferation via as yet unknown mechanisms.