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OBJECTIVE: To examine the promotion of physical activity by general practitioners (GPs) and practice nurses (PNs). METHODS: A questionnaire that examined the types of barriers and the levels of their influence as well as stage of change for activity promotion and for personal behaviour was mailed to 846 subjects. RESULTS: The return rate exceeded 70% in each group with a high proportion (69%) of GPs and PNs reporting that they regularly promote physical activity with their patients. GPs were less likely to regularly promote physical activity with their patients if they indicated lack of time as a barrier (odds ratio (OR) = 0.73, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.58 to 0.93) or lack of incentives (OR = 0.74, 95% CI 0.59 to 0.94), and more likely to promote exercise if they themselves were regular exercisers (OR = 3.19, 95% CI 1.96 to 5.18). However, for PNs longer consultation times (by 1.5 to 2 minutes) had a higher likelihood of producing regular promotion of activity (OR = 1.61, 95% CI 1.02 to 1.62). For PNs personal physical activity stage was the strongest significant predictor of promotion level, but with a stronger effect (OR = 4.77, 95% CI 1.48 to 15.35) than in the GPs. CONCLUSION: The main finding is that GPs in the action or maintenance stage of changing their own physical activity are three times more likely to regularly promote the same behaviour in their patients than those in the other stages; for PNs the same difference quadruples the likelihood of them promoting physical activity. Professional readiness to change is influenced by known system barriers in GPs, and not in PNs, but is more strongly predicted by personal physical activity behaviour in both groups.