Measurement of total energy expenditure may be crucial to an understanding of the relation between physical activity and disease and in order to frame public health intervention. To devise a self-administered physical activity frequency questionnaire (PAFQ), the following data-based approach was used. A 24-hour recall was administered to a random sample of 919 adult residents of Geneva, Switzerland. The data obtained were used to establish the list of activities (and their median duration) that contributed to 95% of the energy expended, separately for men and women. Activities that were trivial for the whole sample but that contributed to > or = 10% of an individual's energy expenditure were also selected. The final PAFQ lists 70 activities or group of activities with their typical duration. About 20 minutes are required for respondents to indicate the number of days and the number of hours per day that they performed each activity. The PAFQ method was validated against a heart rate monitor, a more objective method. The total energy estimated by the PAFQ in 41 volunteers correlated well (r = 0.76) with estimates using a heart rate monitor. The authors conclude that the design of their self-administered physical activity frequency questionnaire based on data from 24-hour recall appeared to accurately estimate energy expenditure.