To evaluate the physiological and symptom determinants of exercise performance (EP) as measured by a 6-min walking test (6MWD), Watt(max), and peak oxygen consumption (VO2 ml/min/kg), 105 patients with chronic airway obstruction (CAO) [50 chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD): 44 men, aged 63+/-7 years, forced expiratory volume in 1 sec (FEV1) forced vital capacity (FVC)(-1)% 54+/-13; and 55 asthmatic: 23 men, aged 55+/-10 years, FEV1 FVC(-1) % 65+/-10] underwent evaluation of 6MWD, symptom limited cyclo-ergometer exercise test, spirometry, respiratory muscle function, arterial blood gases and sensation of dyspnoea [using the Borg scale, Visual Analogue Scale (VAS) and Baseline Dyspnoea Index (BDI)]. A hierarchical method of analysis identified the residual volume (RV), total lung capacity (TLC)(-1) ratio, BDI and the patient's age as the strongest and most consistent correlates of EP (r2 = 0.14-0.21). The correlation between EP and its various determinants was not influenced by diagnosis. The relationship between breathlessness and EP was different between men and women: at any given level of exercise, women were more breathless than men. In multivariate analyses that contained both RV TLC(-1) and BDI, the RV TLC(-1) ratio was the strongest correlate of EP, although the BDI remained a significant covariate. Overall, age was the major determinant of EP but inclusion of the RV TLC(-1) ratio and the BDI into the model explained a further 9-15% of the variance in EP. These three covariates together explained 26-34% of the variance between patients. We conclude that in stable CAO patients, the prediction of exercise capacity by anthropometric, demographic, clinical and physiological variables is likely to be low. Age, pulmonary hyperinflation and dyspnoea are the strongest and most consistent correlates of impaired exercise performance. Airways obstruction, measured during expiration using FEV1, does not appear to be a predictor of physiological impairment. These results underline the importance of performing exercise evaluation in CAO patients.