BACKGROUND: The development of portable liquid oxygen systems, capable of delivering high flow rate oxygen for long periods, justifies reassessment of the value of supplemental oxygen to aid exercise tolerance in patients with chronic respiratory insufficiency. The type of exercise test and the low oxygen flow rates previously used may account for the variable and often poor responses to supplemental oxygen reported in earlier studies. METHODS: The walking tolerance of 30 patients with severe respiratory disability was measured while they were breathing air and increasing doses of supplemental oxygen (2, 4, 6 1/min) by using both the standard six minute walking test and an endurance walking test. To assess the initial learning effect and repeatability of the walking tests, three six minute walks and three endurance walks were performed on day 1 and a single walk of each type on days 2, 3, and 14. In addition, oxygen dosing studies were performed on days 2 and 3 after the initial baseline walking tests. Each dosing study comprised four endurance walking tests or four six minute walking tests with patients breathing either air at a flow rate of 4 1/min from a portable cylinder or supplemental oxygen at a flow rate of 2, 4 or 6 1/min from a portable liquid oxygen supply. The order of the tests was randomised. Walking distance with each flow rate of oxygen was compared with walking distance with patients carrying cylinder air and for the initial unburdened walks. Breathlessness was assessed by visual analogue scoring on completion of each walk. RESULTS: Exercise ability and breathlessness were significantly improved with supplemental oxygen and this benefit outweighed the reduction in performance resulting from carrying the portable device. Supplemental oxygen at flow rates of 2, 4, and 6 1/min increased mean endurance walking distances by 37.9%, 67.7% and 85.0% and six minute walking distances by 19.2%, 34.5%, and 36.3% by comparison with distances when the patient was carrying air with a flow rate of 4 1/min. The additional work of carrying the portable gas supply reduced endurance walking distance by 22.2% and six minute walking distance by 14.1% by comparison with a baseline unburdened walk. Comparison of supplemental oxygen at 2, 4, and 6 1/min with the baseline unburdened performance showed increased endurance walking distances of 7.3%, 30.4%, and 43.9% and six minute walking distances of 2.3%, 15.5%, and 17.0%. Walking distance was increased by more than 50% by comparison with an unburdened walk in seven patients with the endurance walking test but in only three patients with the six minute walking test. The benefit was similar in patients with obstructive and with interstitial lung disease. Individual responses were variable and only desaturation during the baseline walk in patients with obstructive lung disease had any predictive value for benefit with oxygen. CONCLUSION: As there was no clear relation between response to oxygen therapy and the patients' characteristics, assessment for supplemental oxygen therapy will depend on exercise testing. It is suggested that portable oxygen should be considered only if a patient shows a 50% improvement in exercise ability with high flow rate oxygen (4-6 1/min) by comparison with an unburdened walk.