Oxygen defect control has long been considered an important route to functionalizing complex oxide films. However, the nature of oxygen defects in thin films is often not investigated beyond basic redox chemistry. One of the model examples for oxygen-defect studies is the layered Ruddlesden–Popper phase La2−xSr x CuO4−δ (LSCO), in which the superconducting transition temperature is highly sensitive to epitaxial strain. However, previous observations of strain-superconductivity coupling in LSCO thin films were mainly understood in terms of elastic contributions to mechanical buckling, with minimal consideration of kinetic or thermodynamic factors. Here, we report that the oxygen nonstoichiometry commonly reported for strained cuprates is mediated by the strain-modified surface exchange kinetics, rather than reduced thermodynamic oxygen formation energies. Remarkably, tensile-strained LSCO shows nearly an order of magnitude faster oxygen exchange rate than a compressively strained film, providing a strategy for developing high-performance energy materials.