Background: Understanding how exercise influences health is important in designing public health interventions. At present, evidence suggests that there is a positive relationship between exercise and health. However, whether this relationship is partly due to the stress-moderating impact of exercise has been less frequently investigated although more and more people are taxed by stressful life circumstances.
Methods: A comprehensive review of studies testing the potential of exercise as a stress-buffer was conducted (including literature from 1982 to 2008). The findings are based on a narrative review method. Specific criteria were taken into account to evaluate causality of the evidence.
Results: About half of the studies reported at least partly supportive results in the sense that people with high exercise levels exhibit less health problems when they encounter stress. The causality analyses show that stress-moderation effects were consistently found in different samples and with different methodological approaches. Although more support results from cross-sectional studies, exercise-based stress-buffer effects were also found in prospective, longitudinal and quasi-experimental investigations.
Conclusions: This review underscores the relevance of exercise as a public health resource. Recommendations are provided for future research. More prospective and experimental studies are needed to provide insight into how much exercise is necessary to trigger stress-buffer effects. Furthermore, more information is warranted to conclude which sort of exercise has the strongest impact on the stress-illness-relationship.