Resting energy expenditure is frequently increased in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), but it is unknown if this hypermetabolism holds true over 24 h. The aim of this study was to measure the actual 24-h energy expenditure (24-h EE) in patients with stable COPD. Energy expenditure was measured by indirect calorimetry, using a metabolic chamber for 24-h EE and a canopy for basal metabolic rate (BMR). Physical activity was detected in the chamber by a radar system, and its duration was quantified. Two groups matched for age and height were studied: 16 male ambulatory patients with stable COPD and 12 male normal subjects. Body weight was 92 +/- 12% of ideal body weight in the group with COPD and 108 +/- 11% in the control group (p = 0.01). BMR was 120 +/- 7% of predicted in the group with COPD and 108 +/- 12% in the control group (p < 0.01). However, 24-h EE was similar in the two groups, amounting to 1,935 +/- 259 kcal in patients with COPD and 2,046 +/- 253 kcal in the control group (NS). This corresponded to 145% and 137% of predicted BMR, and to 121% and 126% of measured BMR in patients with COPD and the control group, respectively (NS). Patients were allowed to pursue their usual treatment within the chamber, and a positive correlation existed between 24-h EE and the daily dose of inhaled beta 2-agonists (p < 0.03). During daytime, physical activity was lower in patients with COPD. This study shows that patients with stable COPD are characterized by a normal daily energy expenditure in controlled conditions in spite of an increased basal metabolic rate. They appear to save energy by reducing their spontaneous level of physical activity.