MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

This systematic review aimed to identify and explore published studies on the health, wellbeing and economic impact of retreat experiences. Three electronic databases were searched for residential retreat studies published in English. Studies were included, if they involved an intervention program in a residential setting of one or more nights, and included before-and-after data related to the health of participants.

A total of 23 studies including 8 randomised controlled trials, 6 non-randomised controlled trials and 9 longitudinal cohort studies met the inclusion criteria. These studies included a total of 2592 participants from diverse geographical and demographic populations and a great heterogeneity of outcome measures, with 7 studies examining objective outcomes such as blood pressure or biological makers of disease, and 16 studies examining subjective outcomes that mostly involved self-reported questionnaires on psychological and spiritual measures.

All studies reported post-retreat health benefits ranging from immediately after to five-years post-retreat. Study populations varied widely and most studies had small sample sizes, poorly described methodology and little follow-up data, and no studies reported on health economic outcomes or adverse effects, making it difficult to make definite conclusions about specific conditions, safety or return on investment.

The authors concluded that health retreat experiences appear to have health benefits that include benefits for people with chronic diseases such as multiple sclerosis, various cancers, HIV/AIDS, heart conditions and mental health. Future research with larger numbers of subjects and longer follow-up periods are needed to investigate the health impact of different retreat experiences and the clinical populations most likely to benefit. Further studies are also needed to determine the economic benefits of retreat experiences for individuals, as well as for businesses, health insurers and policy makers.

In the article, the authors also state that the findings from the reviewed studies suggest there are many positive health benefits from retreat experiences that includes improvements in both subjective and objective measures… The results from the most rigorous studies that used randomized controlled designs were consistent with less rigorous studies and suggest that retreat experiences can produce benefits that include positive changes in metabolic and neurological pathways, loss of weight, blood pressure and abdominal girth, reduction in health symptoms and improvements in quality of life and subjective wellbeing.

As it happens, we have discussed one of their ‘most rigorous’ RCTs on this blog. Here is what I wrote about it when it was first published:

The ‘study‘ in question allegedly examined the effects of a comprehensive residential mind–body program on well-being. The authors describe it as “a quasi-randomized trial comparing the effects of participation in a 6-day Ayurvedic system of medicine-based comprehensive residential program with a 6-day residential vacation at the same retreat location.” They included 69 healthy women and men who received the Ayurvedic intervention addressing physical and emotional well-being through group meditation and yoga, massage, diet, adaptogenic herbs, lectures, and journaling. Key components of the program include physical cleansing through ingestion of herbs, fiber, and oils that support the body’s natural detoxification pathways and facilitate healthy elimination; two Ayurvedic meals daily (breakfast and lunch) that provide a light plant-based diet; daily Ayurvedic oil massage treatments; and heating treatments through the use of sauna and/or steam. The program includes lectures on Ayurvedic principles and lifestyle as well as lectures on meditation and yoga philosophy. The study group also participated in twice-daily group meditation and daily yoga and practiced breathing exercises (pranayama) as well as emotional expression through a process of journaling and emotional support. During the program, participants received a 1-hour integrative medical consultation with a physician and follow-up with an Ayurvedic health educator.

The control group simply had a vacation without any of the above therapies in the same resort. They were asked to do what they would normally do on a resort vacation with the additional following restrictions: they were asked not to engage in more exercise than they would in their normal lifestyle and to refrain from using La Costa Resort spa services. They were also asked not to drink ginger tea or take Gingko biloba during the 2 days before and during the study week.

Recruitment was via email announcements on the University of California San Diego faculty and staff and Chopra Center for Wellbeing list-servers. Study flyers stated that the week-long Self-Directed Biological Transformation Initiative (SBTI) study would be conducted at the Chopra Center for Wellbeing, located at the La Costa Resort in Carlsbad, California, in order to learn more about the psychosocial and physiologic effects of the 6-day Perfect Health (PH) Program compared with a 6-day stay at the La Costa Resort. The study participants were not blinded, and site investigators and study personnel knew to which group participants were assigned.

Participants in the Ayurvedic program showed significant and sustained increases in ratings of spirituality and gratitude compared with the vacation group, which showed no change. The Ayurvedic participants also showed increased ratings for self-compassion as well as less anxiety at the 1-month follow-up.

The authors arrived at the following conclusion: Findings suggest that a short-term intensive program providing holistic instruction and experience in mind–body healing practices can lead to significant and sustained increases in perceived well-being and that relaxation alone is not enough to improve certain aspects of well-being.

This ‘study’ had ethical approval from the University of California San Diego and was supported by the Fred Foundation, the MCJ Amelior Foundation, the National Philanthropic Trust, the Walton Family Foundation, and the Chopra Foundation. The paper’s first author is director of research at the Chopra Foundation… Just for the record, let me formulate a short conclusion that actually fits the data from this ‘study’: Lots of TLC, attention and empathy does make some people feel better… 

END OF QUOTE FROM MY OWN POST

The subject of health retreats could be relevant and important. Educating people and teaching them the essentials about healthy life-styles is potentially a good thing. It could well turn out that health retreats benefit many individuals, while saving money for society.

Yet, do we need all sorts of quackery for achieving this aim?

No, we don’t!

A rational programme would need to teach and motivate people about diet, weight control, smoking cessation, regular sleep, relaxation, exercise, etc. It could prevent disease and save funds. This approach has existed in Europe long before the US ‘New Agers’ with their flimflam jumped on this bandwagon. Health education is a good idea, but it does not require the use of alternative therapies or luxury retreats.

As it turns out, the new systematic review is a disappointment. It fails to stress that no firm conclusions can be drawn from flimsy data and degenerates into little more than an embarrassing advertisement for Deepak Chopra’s and similar entrepreneurs’ money-making retreats. It totally ignores the sizable body of Non-English literature on the subject, and is focussed on promoting fashionable retreats and wellness centres in the US and Australia.

To be fair to the authors, they almost admit as much when they state: “Competing interests: MC is a board member of the Global Wellness Summit and has previously been a paid presenter at the Gwinganna Health Retreat. RMIT University has received donations from Danubius Hotel Group, Lapinha, Sunswept Resorts, Sheenjoy and The Golden Door for ongoing retreat research.”

I rest my case.

4 Responses to A ‘systematic’ review of health retreats: more advertising than science

  • Shame really as I enthusiastically embraced all the above in my starry eyed days. But never went on an Ayervedic retreat. Now I know better.

  • Anecdote: I went on a week’s retreat in Igls.
    Lost weight, felt better (so would you on 500 cal a day!), had low vitamin D diagnosed (for which my NHS GP prescribes cholecalciferol).
    Homeopathy and acupuncture was available, but declined with no problem.
    Conned to purchase MgSO4!

    A ‘retreat’ can be beneficial, but it does not have to be dressed up with pseudo-medicine, condimentary medicine (nice feeling, but no effect on pathology), ‘Ayurveda’ etc.
    Be honest.
    TLC is nice.
    Good advice is good.
    Placebos are pleasing.
    But that’s it.
    Quacks make an irritating noise.
    Cut the crap. Please.

  • What is the evidence for European spas or, perhaps the famous Soviet ones?

    I had always thought the latter sounded like a nice rest cure/vacation that probably did one some good.

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