Clinical experience suggests that exercise is beneficial for recovery after an acute exacerbation in patients with severe chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). The aim of this study was to quantify the clinical benefit of exercise in these patients. Twenty-nine inpatients were randomly assigned to a training group (n = 15, FEV1 34% pred) or a control group (n = 14, FEV1 38% pred). On ten consecutive days, patients in the training group performed a 6-min treadmill walking test and, in addition, five walking sessions per day at > or = 75% of the respective treadmill walking distance. Patients in the control group performed only treadmill walking tests on days 1, 5, and 10. To directly compare the possible benefit of exercise training all patients had an exercise test on day 11 at the same work load as on day 1. In the training group, 6-min walking distance increased from 237 to 420 m, in the control group from 230 to 255 m over the 10 day period which was significantly different (P < 0.0001). Minute ventilation and oxygen uptake increased significantly (P < 0.05) in the training but not in the control group. When comparing exercise tests on days 1 and 11, minute ventilation, oxygen uptake, PaCO2, lactic acid concentration, and Borg scale were significantly reduced to achieve the same work load (P < 0.01) only in the training group. Intrathoracic gas volume and residual volume decreased, and FEV1 and vital capacity increased in the training (P < 0.05) but not in the control group. Our data demonstrate that exercise training significantly improves the exercise capacity in patients with severe COPD after an acute exacerbation of their disease.