To investigate the effects of obesity on the regulation of end-expiratory lung volume (EELV) during exercise we studied nine obese (41 +/- 6% body fat and 35 +/- 7 yr, mean +/- SD) and eight lean (18 +/- 3% body fat and 34 +/- 4 yr) women. We hypothesized that the simple mass loading of obesity would constrain the decrease in EELV in the supine position and during exercise. All subjects underwent respiratory mechanics measurements in the supine and seated positions, and during graded cycle ergometry to exhaustion. Data were analyzed between groups by independent t-test in the supine and seated postures, and during exercise at ventilatory threshold and peak. Total lung capacity (TLC) was reduced in the obese women (P < 0.05). EELV was significantly lower in the obese subjects in the supine (37 +/- 6 vs. 45 +/- 5% TLC) and seated (45 +/- 6 vs. 53 +/- 5% TLC) positions and at ventilatory threshold (41 +/- 4 vs. 49 +/- 5% TLC) (P < 0.01). In conclusion, despite reduced resting lung volumes and alterations in respiratory mechanics during exercise, mild obesity in women does not appear to constrain EELV during cycling nor does it limit exercise capacity. Also, these data suggest that other nonmechanical factors also regulate the level of EELV during exercise.