To evaluate the energy metabolism of peripheral skeletal muscle during exercise in patients with chronic respiratory impairment, the 31P-nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectra of forearm muscle were investigated in nine patients and nine age-matched control subjects. We calculated the phosphocreatine (PCr) to PCr + inorganic phosphate (PI) ratio, the time constant of PCr recovery and the intracellular pH. The exercise consisted of repetitive hand grips against a 2-kg load every 3 s for 6 min (0.33 W). The patients showed a marked decrease in the PCr/(PCr + PI) ratio and pH in the muscle during exercise in contrast to the control subjects whose PCr/(PCr + PI) showed a minor decrease without any change in pH. The relationship between PCr utilization and pH demonstrated that anaerobic glycolysis switched on earlier in patients with chronic respiratory impairment. A split PI peak was observed in five of nine patients during exercise. The PCr/(PCr + PI) ratio during the last minute of exercise correlated significantly with the vital capacity (% predicted), with the FEV1/FVC, with the body weight, with the maximum strength of hand grip, and with the muscle mass. The results indicate impaired oxidative phosphorylation and the early activation of anaerobic glycolysis in the muscles of patients with chronic respiratory impairment. Several factors related to chronic respiratory impairment, such as disuse, malnutrition and dysoxia, would contribute to the metabolic changes observed in the muscles examined.