In a TikTok video that has now amassed nearly half a million views, the influencer Mady Maio describes taking a walk. But not just any walk: a silent one.
For her, the 30-minute stroll was revelatory. No podcasts, no music. Just “me, myself and I.”
She was resistant at first. (It was her boyfriend’s idea.) “My anxiety could never,” she said in the video.
Ms. Maio described the first two minutes as mental “mayhem” that eventually gave way to a “flow state.” Her brain fog lifted. Ideas started popping into her head because she was “giving them space to enter.”
The silent walk is TikTok’s latest wellness obsession, a blend of meditation and exercise that aims to improve mental health. Unlike the similarly trendy “hot girl walk,” a four-mile odyssey that requires goal-setting and giving thanks, the silent walk does not involve multitasking. There is no agenda other than to set one foot in front of the other and take note of the world around you.
Walking in silence is an ancient tradition rooted in mindfulness, a form of meditation that helps people focus on the physical sensations, thoughts and emotions of the present moment, without any judgment.
The fact that the silent walk is nothing new has attracted a chorus of critics; “Gen Z thinks it just invented walking,” they say.
To that, Arielle Lorre, 38, a content creator in Los Angeles, had to laugh.
“Fifteen or 20 years ago, this would not have even been a conversation,” said Ms. Lorre, who has often discussed the benefits of silent walks, most recently on her podcast and on TikTok. But silent walking feels relevant right now because many of us have become tethered to our devices, she added.
The question then becomes: “How do we counteract that?” Ms. Lorre said.
Walking is a well-established balm for the mind and body. Research has shown that walking for as little as 10 extra minutes a day may lead to a longer life. And a 2020 study in The Journal of Environmental Psychology found that a 30-minute walk in an urban park reduced the amount of time that people dwelled on negative thoughts. Walking has also been shown to improve creativity and help fend off depression.
Ms. Lorre, who walks in silence for at least 45 minutes roughly four times a week, said that since she started this practice about a year ago, she now sleeps better, feels calmer and has more consistent energy throughout the day.
But for some people, the idea of a silent walk might seem torturous. One 2014 study found that, if left with no other option, people would shock themselves rather than sit alone with their thoughts.
“Most people seem to prefer to be doing something rather than nothing, even if that something is negative,” the study authors wrote.
Walking, however, can make it more pleasant to spend time with ourselves, experts say.
Erin C. Westgate, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Florida in Gainesville who studies boredom, found in her research that being in transit, which included walking or riding public transportation, was one of the times when people most often reported having enjoyable thoughts.
Walking “isn’t so demanding that it’s actually taking up a lot of your mental bandwidth,” Dr. Westgate said, which “gives us permission and license to daydream.”
If the idea of daydreaming seems luxurious, it may be because our attention spans have shriveled over the last two decades.
We now spend an average of about 47 seconds on a piece of screen content before switching to another piece of content, according to research led by Gloria Mark, a professor of informatics at the University of California, Irvine, and the author of “Attention Span.” Back in 2004, however, Dr. Mark found that people could spend an average of two and a half minutes on email before turning to another work task.
Continually flipping our attention from one task to another is draining, Dr. Mark said. But a silent walk can help replenish our “tank” so that we have a greater reserve of mental energy, she added. In other words, disconnecting for a while can actually help us perform better.
Dr. Mark suggested taking digital breaks at other times, not just when we’re walking, and that we think about an emotional goal for the day, not just a list of tasks.
For example, if your goal is to feel calm, you can write that on a Post-it note and refer back to it when thinking about how you’ll spend your fleeting free time that day.
“So many of us feel like we’re always behind and running to catch up,” said David M. Levy, a professor at the Information School at the University of Washington in Seattle, and the author of “Mindful Tech.” This can lead to a state of being “so distracted that we aren’t present at all.”
But in a future-oriented society we need opportunities to be satisfied with the here and now, Dr. Levy said, and drop the pressure to be productive.
“There is great beauty and aliveness in the world outside of whatever it is we’re doing on our devices,” Dr. Levy said.
Audio produced by Kate Winslett.