Regular exercise is known to be effective in the prevention and treatment of cardiovascular disease. Among the cardioprotectant mechanisms influenced by exercise, the endothelium is becoming recognised as a major target. Preservation of endothelial cell structure is vital for frictionless blood flow, prevention of macrophage and lipid infiltration and, ultimately, optimal vascular function. Exercise causes various kinds of mechanical, chemical and thermal stresses, and repeated exposure to these stresses may precondition the endothelial cell to future stresses through a number of different mechanisms. This review discusses stress-induced changes in endothelial cell morphology, biochemistry and components of platelet activation and cell adhesion that impact on endothelial cell structure. An enhanced understanding of the effects of exercise on the endothelial cell will assist in directing future research into the prevention of cardiovascular disease. (c) 2004 Elsevier Ireland Ltd. All rights reserved.