Retreat experiences can provide health benefits for people suffering conditions such as multiple sclerosis, cancer, HIV/AIDS, heart conditions and mental health issues, according to new research.
Professor Marc Cohen, from RMIT University in Australia, and a team of researchers examined 23 studies relating to the health impacts of immersive residential retreat experiences, with their findings published this month in the journal BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine.
“The findings from the reviewed studies suggest there are many positive health benefits from retreat experiences, which include improvements in both subjective and objective measures,” said Cohen.
“It's likely that improvements in health are due to a combination of psychological and behavioural factors that lead to better coping mechanisms, lifestyle choices and enhanced resilience to stress.”
The studies involved 2,592 participants from a wide range of geographical and demographic populations – from luxury resort guests to unemployed adults and even prison inmates.
Seven studies examined objective outcomes such as blood pressure or biological markers of disease, while 16 had subjective outcomes, mostly involving self-reported questionnaires on psychological and spiritual measures.
All of the studies reported post-retreat health benefits ranging from immediately after the retreat to five years after.
“The results suggest retreat experiences significantly improve people’s lives," said Cohen.
"This is evident from reported improvements in quality of life and subjective wellbeing, decreases in the frequency and severity of health symptoms, reductions in body weight, blood pressure and abdominal girth, and positive changes in metabolic and neurological pathways.”
Four studies looked at retreats aimed at improving quality of life for cancer patients, and all showed benefits, including improvements in quality of life, depression and anxiety scores, and increased telomere length, with benefits being recorded up to five years after the retreat.
“The finding that retreat experiences can lead to sustained and significant health improvements long after participants return home suggests they help guests make positive lifestyle changes and adopt healthy behaviours that lead to positive psychological, physiological, cognitive, clinical and metabolic effects,” said Cohen.
“While retreat experiences can have significant medical benefits, communication between the retreat and health industry is limited and there is scope for much greater collaboration.
"The health industry could benefit from recommending retreat experiences to reduce the burden of lifestyle-related chronic disease and the retreat industry could benefit from routinely collecting medical data from guests so the medical benefits can be better documented and the influence of different types of retreat experiences can be determined for specific guests.”
Cohen said that more research is needed, with larger numbers of subjects and longer follow-up periods to determine the economic benefits of retreats for individuals, as well as for businesses, health insurers and policymakers.
“Such research could allow the retreat industry to become better integrated into mainstream care,” he said.