HEALTH IMPACT OF A RETREAT

The retreat industry is a niche sector of the wellness tourism industry that focuses on transformative experiences that aim to improve the health of participants through healthy lifestyle experiences, along with providing the skills and knowledge to help maintain healthy behaviours. 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 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.

In addition to facilitating general health improvements, there is evidence that retreat experiences can have a positive impact on chronic disease processes and provide benefits for some people with life threatening and/or chronic diseases. 

The finding that retreat experiences can lead to sustained and significant health improvements long after participants return home suggests that these experiences assist guests in making positive lifestyle changes and adopting healthy behaviours that lead to a variety of positive psychological, physiological, cognitive, clinical and metabolic effects. The ability to influence participants’ health once they return home is dependent on many factors including the type of participants involved, the education and experiences provided during the retreat program, and the provision of follow-up activities such as online coaching, nutrition programs, or follow-up consultations with practitioners. 

While it is not possible to determine which parts of the retreat intervention have the greatest influence, it is likely that improvements in health are due to a combination of psychological and behavioural factors that lead to better coping mechanisms and enhanced resilience to stress, as well as metabolic factors that lead to alterations in gene expression and DNA repair mechanisms.

Despite the potential for retreat experiences to benefit people with chronic and life threatening disease, the retreat industry does not routinely interact with the health care sector with few patients being referred to retreats by medical practitioners and retreat experiences are generally not covered by third party payment schemes or eligible for tax deductions or incentives. The lack of integration between the healthcare and retreat sectors may be partly due to a lack of data with which to evaluate retreat experiences.  

Such data could include a combination of psychological, cognitive, physiological, anthropometric and biochemical measures that together provide a holistic assessment of outcomes. This would allow retreat participants to evaluate and monitor the impact of their experiences and provide data to engage the medical profession and third party payers. It would also be beneficial for the industry to develop a standardised reporting system for retreat activities so that the influence of different types of retreat experiences can be assessed and results meaningfully compared across retreats and studies.

While retreat experiences appear to have positive health impacts, there is no published data on the economic impact of retreat experiences. There is however, substantial evidence that non-residential wellness programs, which share a similar focus on health promotion and lifestyle modification, provide a substantial economic return. A review of 28 studies of corporate wellness programs finds that the economic benefit of participation is substantially higher than the costs of providing the program. Stead reports benefit-to-cost ratios averaging 3.4–1 which indicates that corporate companies receive on average US$3.40 for every US$1 invested in the respective wellness program. In addition to return on investment, employees benefit from participating in corporate wellness programs through experiencing better health, lowered disability payments and reduced health care expenditures, while companies benefit from reduced employee turnover, increased productivity and reduced absenteeism and presenteeism along with intangible benefits such as being an employer of choice and attracting highly skilled employees and creating a positive corporate culture 

While the economic benefits of corporate wellness programs are becoming well established, it is unclear if similar benefits are offered by residential retreats. Future studies that include a health economic analysis are therefore needed to determine the cost-benefits of retreat experiences and the return on investment for participants, businesses, health insurers and policy makers. This may enable retreat operators to advocate for tax benefits, as well as inclusion in health insurance policies, and corporate wellness schemes. 

As the observed improvements in chronic diseases are based on a small number of patients, future research using larger numbers of subjects and longer follow-up periods is needed in order to determine the populations most likely to benefit and quantify any long-term health benefits. Future studies could also benefit from more rigorous study designs including the use of standardized outcome measures, more detailed descriptions of the retreat interventions and study population, and the inclusion of a health economics analysis in order to determine the economic benefits of retreat experiences for individuals, as well as for businesses, health insurers and policy makers.

Excerpt from: https://doi.org/10.1186/s12906-017-2078-4 

Researched by: Dhevaksha Naidoo, Adrian Schembri and Marc Cohen

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Posted on March 1, 2018 .