The Benefits of Retreats: Science & Spirituality
‘A retreat’s just an indulgent holiday, right?’
Prior to researching the science behind the holistic health benefits of retreats, this is precisely what I thought.
‘Of course’ a break from work and the day to day stress of life makes you feel better – but was there really anything more than that to the wellness industry’s latest obsession?
As the data-head of The Good Index team, I decided to dig into the facts. Handily, a BMC study in 2019 by Naidoo, Schembri and Cohen conducted a review of all health-related residential retreat studies and summarised the collective findings (1). They analysed 23 existing studies, 7 of which focused on testing the physical health benefits of retreats and 16 which attempted to quantify more subjective psychological and spiritual measures.
They found those who attended retreats benefit across 3 keys areas:
- Physical Health
All seven studies investigating objective physical health outcomes reported statistically significant improvements during the retreat stay. Three studies reported reduction in waistline circumference, blood pressure and cholesterol and the remainder showed improved regulation of stress response, boosted immune system and better metabolism of amyloid beta (Aβ), a trigger to Alzheimer’s (1).
Specifically, participants staying at a holistic, 1-week retreat experience in Queensland that included educational, therapeutic and leisure activities, plus an organic, predominantly plant-based diet showed a decrease in abdominal girth by 2.7 cm (that’s right, a slimmer waistline), average weight loss of 1.6 kg, and reduction in blood pressure (−16.1 mmHg systolic and −9.3 mmHg diastolic) (3). Additionally, a study focusing specifically on meditation displayed a reduction in mean arterial blood pressure amongst even novice meditators on day one (2).
- Mental Health
Eight of the nine studies measuring psychological well being reported statistically significant improvements in a variety of indicators including depression, anxiety, tension, stress, fatigue, mindful awareness and vitality.
An example of such is a study of participants in a 10-day Vipassana residential meditation course who rated themselves significantly higher in self-assessments of psychological health-related parameters such as ‘Do you have a high level of belief in your own ability to overcome difficult situations?’ immediately after the course, suggesting that the 10 days’ practice had significantly improved their psychological well-being (4).
Research also shows that retreats can have a positive impact on the mental health of chronic disease sufferers. Four studies focused on cancer patients showed improvements in quality of life, depression and anxiety scores with benefits being recorded up to five years post-retreat. Similarly, benefits of retreat participation are reported for people with multiple sclerosis with improvements in mental health being evident up to five years post-retreat (1).
All six studies measuring spiritual well being reported significant improvements in various religious and spiritual measures. Vella and Budd reported improvements in overall spiritual wellbeing and Mills et al. reported a noteworthy increase in spirituality and gratitude in the intervention group that participated in a six-day Panchakarma Ayurvedic program, compared with no change in the control group that were on vacation at the same resort (1).
Two studies investigating the relationship between spirituality and health measures, found that measures of spirituality increased after a retreat along with increased well-being, sense of meaning and purpose in life, confidence in handling problems and a decreased tendency to become angry. Similarly, Emavardhana and Tori found that heightened belief in the 5 Buddhist precepts – refraining from taking what is not given, intoxicants, wrong speech, misuse of the senses and taking life – was associated with positive change in self-concept (an individual’s beliefs about themselves) and less self-criticism.(1).
So, when considering the original question again, the evidence conclusively states that a retreat is far more than just an ‘indulgent holiday’. Together these findings show that the retreat experience not only improved participants’ physical, mental and spiritual health in the short time period they were at the retreat, but also taught them how to make positive adjustments to their lifestyles that led to health improvements that continued even after they returned to their regular routines.
Whilst still not fully understood by the medical community, these studies indicate that retreats should be considered more widely as a powerful tool in improving holistic health.
To start exploring the right retreat for your specific physical, mental or spiritual needs, click here.
(1):‘The health impact of residential retreats: a systematic review’ by Naidoo, Schembri, Cohen
(2) ‘Cardiovascular and nervous system changes during meditation’ by Steinhubl et al.
(4) ‘Vipassana meditation: A naturalistic, preliminary observation in Muscat’, by Ala’Aldin Al-Hussaini et al.
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