MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

Wellness?

Yes, it’s a new buzz-word in the realm of alternative medicine – actually, not so new; it’s been around for years and seems to attract charlatans of all imaginable types.

But what precisely is it?

The authors of this paper explain: “While the concept of wellness is still evolving, it is generally recognized that wellness is a holistic concept best represented as a continuum, with sickness, premature death, disability, and reactive approaches to health on one side and high-level wellness, enhanced health, and proactive approaches to health and well-being on the other. It is further acknowledged that wellness is multidimensional and includes physiologic, psychological, social, ecologic, and economic dimensions. These multiple dimensions make wellness difficult to accurately assess as multiple subjective and objective measures are required to account for the different dimensions. Thus, the assessment of wellness in individuals may include a variety of factors, including assessment of physiologic functioning, anthropometry, happiness, depression, anxiety, mood, sleep, health symptoms, toxic load, neurocognitive function, socioeconomic status, social connectivity, and perceived self-efficacy.”

Sounds a bit woolly?

I agree! It sounds like a gimmick for getting at the cash of the gullible public.

Is there money to be made with ‘wellness’?

Sure! Lots!

For instance, with so-called ‘wellness retreats’.

Wellness retreats are all the rage. They use all sorts of bogus therapies within luxurious holiday settings for the ‘well to do’ end of our societies.

But is there any science behind this approach?

Few studies have evaluated the effect of retreat experiences, and no published studies have reported health outcomes. The objective of this new study therefore was to assess the effect of a week-long wellness-retreat experience in wellness tourists. The study was designed as a longitudinal observational study without a control group. Outcomes were assessed upon arrival and departure and 6 weeks after the retreat. The intervention was a ‘holistic, 1-week, residential, retreat experience that included many educational, therapeutic, and leisure activities and an organic, mostly plant-based diet’.

The outcome measures included anthropometric measures, urinary pesticide metabolites, a food and health symptom questionnaire, the Five Factor Wellness Inventory, the General Self Efficacy questionnaire, the Pittsburgh Insomnia Rating Scale, the Depression Anxiety Stress Scale, the Profile of Mood States, and the Cogstate cognitive function test battery.

Statistically significant improvements were seen in almost all measures after 1 week. Many of these improvements were also sustained at 6 weeks. There were statistically significant improvements in all anthropometric measures after 1 week, with reductions in abdominal girth, weight, and average systolic and diastolic pressure. Statistically significant improvements were also noted in psychological and health symptom measures. Urinary pesticide metabolites were detected in pooled urine samples before the retreat and were undetectable after the retreat.

The authors concluded that “the retreat experiences can lead to substantial improvements in multiple dimensions of health and well-being that are maintained for 6 weeks. Further research that includes objective biomarkers and economic measures in different populations is required to determine the mechanisms of these effects and assess the value and relevance of retreat experiences to clinicians and health insurers.”

IS THIS GOOD OR BAD RESEARCH?

Let’s apply my checklist from the previous post:

  • published in one of the many dodgy CAM journals? YES
  • single author? NO
  • authors are known to be proponents of the treatment tested? YES
  • author has previously published only positive studies of the therapy in question? YES
  • lack of plausible rationale for the study? YES
  • lack of plausible rationale for the therapy that is being tested? YES
  • stated aim of the study is ‘to demonstrate the effectiveness of…’ ? NO
  • stated aim ‘to establish the effectiveness AND SAFETY of…’? NO
  • text full of mistakes, e. g. spelling, grammar, etc.? NO
  • sample size is tiny? YES
  • pilot study reporting anything other than the feasibility of a definitive trial? NO
  • methods not described in sufficient detail? YES
  • mismatch between aim, method, and conclusions of the study? YES
  • results presented only as a graph? NO
  • statistical approach inadequate or not sufficiently detailed? NO
  • discussion without critical input? NO
  • lack of disclosures of ethics, funding or conflicts of interest? NO
  • conclusions which are not based on the results? YES

To me, this rough and ready assessment indicates that there are too many warning signals for characterising this as a rigorous study. It looks a lot like pseudo-science, I fear.

But these are at best formal markers. More important is the fact that the whole idea of measuring the effects of a ‘wellness retreat’ makes little sense, particularly in the absence of a control group. If we take a few people out of their usual, stressful work-environment and put them into a nice and luxurious holiday atmosphere where they get papered, eat better food, exercise more, sleep better and relax a lot – what would we expect after one week?

Yes, precisely! We would expect that almost anything measurable has changed for the better!

In fact, this result is so predictable that it is hardly worth documenting. Crucially, the outcome has very little to do with wellness, holism, or alternative medicine.

My conclusion: wellness not only attracts charlatans, entrepreneurs and windbags, it also is firmly steeped in pseudoscience.

 

 

 

6 Responses to Wellness research: mostly embarrassing nonsense

  • Concise and clear post.
    If there’s a salad on my plate, I’ll eat it: unless there’s a slug or other bug…
    When there’s word salad, the slugs and bugs are all over the plate: Alt Med and other charlatanry serve word salad as a major marketing tool.

  • There are just too many sick people with no ability to pay for medical care, and those who can pay are getting too healthy. With little motivation to help the sick poor, the only way to expand the market is to convince the healthy people of means that they need to be more than well. Yesterday’s hypochondriacs must now become the super well. Welcome to the world of health care in the age of greed.

  • In my opinion, wellness is just another term for healthiness. The main reason for its widespread use is marketing. From a marketing perspective, the shorter term is less innocuous, while also being more nebulous. Those marketing dietary supplements embraced the term when they realized that “health” implies the illegal prevention or treatment of disease, whereas “wellness” could be interpreted as psychological. Apart from marketers brandishing the term because of its popularity, weasel word that it is, the term also helps to protect them from prosecution by legal or regulatory authorities.

  • I had long ago noticed that the word “wellness” was normally attached to some nutty-crunchy alternative medicine scheme. The word implies that the scheme involved can guide one to a circumstance of improved health. That may at times be true but often is not.

    It seems to me that legitimate medical practitioners are now using the word more freely for advertising purposes. Dentists hawking smiles and weight loss surgeons are among the main culprits.

    It is not a very terrible thing.

  • In the UK, when something has gone mainstream, you’ll hear it mentioned on a programme called The Archers. Tonight I distinctly heard a character say something about ‘spiritual wellness’. There is no hope left for reason!

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