What do rich and/or famous people do when they need to take a break, lose holiday weight, sober up or gain perspective? They fork over a few thousand dollars and go on a wellness retreat: For a few days (or weeks), they live in off-the-grid luxury and relinquish control over their diet, exercise, therapy, technology use and sleep. They trade in sugar, texting and vegging out for controlled portions of raw wonder food, sunrise hikes and group sessions on circadian-rhythm recalibration. They are pampered and pushed to their limits, and their souls/urine are purified.
It's tempting to dismiss these fancy adult camps as nothing more than places to burn money, be hungry and feel superior. But, according to a new study, published in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, wellness retreats actually do have lasting, measurable health benefits, especially for people who aren't in stellar health. (So now we can rest easy knowing that Minka Kelly's visit to #theranchmalibu really was a "special, unique, detoxifying, and reenergizing experience.")
Wellness itself is a nebulous concept that overlaps with (but somehow differs from) health. Similarly, there's no defined formula for a wellness retreat. But, study authors wrote, most of them include activities and services that foster "a sense of respite, rest, quiet, reflection, rejuvenation, and an opportunity to regain good health." Does opportunity, in this case, translate into concrete results?
Well, there's not much proof in the way of scientific studies. But the few that exist do suggest that wellness retreats fortify the mind and body more than regular old vacations. For instance, in one 2014 study, two groups of women stayed at a resort, but only one group participated in a structured wellness program, and they reported greater improvements in spirituality, gratitude, self-compassion and anxiety.
The current study involved guests at the Gwinganna Lifestyle Retreat, in Queensland, Australia, who'd already sought out and paid a minimum of $3,500 for their week-long stay.The average guest was a middle-aged woman with a college degree and an omniverous diet containing some organic food. This particular retreat focused on developing healthy habits, including a consistent circadian (sleep-and-wake timing) routine. But there were also nature activities, on-site wellness gurus, rules (electronics to the left), specially named afternoon breaks (2pm "dreamtime") and various other services and amenities.
Participants underwent extensive health evaluations, including measures of height, weight and other GP check-up basics, urine analysis, assessments of cognitive function, anxiety, depression, eating habits and sleep, and a 98-question, multi-dimensional psychological evaluation, called the Five Factor wellness inventory.
Researchers repeated (most) of these measures three times: at the outset of the retreat, when it ended, and six weeks later. While 47 guests initially participated, only 16 completed the six-week follow up.
Between the beginning and end of the retreat, researchers found that health improved across the board. Participants were less moody, better-slept, a little skinnier and no longer showed detectable levels of pesticide residue and other undesirable things in their urine.
After six weeks, some of the effects were sustained, notably for mood stability and five-factor wellness measures. But other measures, including anxiety and sleep, returned to pre-retreat levels, presumably, study authors wrote, because guests didn't keep up their ohm-filled, device-free lifestyles back in the real world. The health changes were most pronounced in guests who'd started out in the worst shape.
The study had limits: Gwinganna guests were a self-selecting pool of high-earners with the wherewithall to go on a retreat, so they hardly represent the general population. Regardless, researchers saw the health changes, especially the six-week results, as evidence that this type of multi-dimensional, immersive wellness experience is a legitimate way to improve assorted mind/body/other issues that make us sad, fat and sick. Researchers were not, however, blind to the fact that the people likely to benefit most from wellness retreats aren't the same people who can take them. Rather than conclude that, based on these findings, we should all just follow the lead of Insta-lebrities, researchers pointed to countries where alternative health services are covered by insurance. In Germany, for instance, residents are allowed up to three weeks of free residential spa treatment. And taking this spa vacay, a 2008 study found, corresponded to fewer lost workdays and less hospital time.
But government-funded R&R doesn't exactly scream "America." In the US, wellness is a lifestyle to profit from, not something to give away for free.