In an industry where many of the players struggle to find their unique selling points – LifeWorks Health and Neuroscience in Montana is like a fresh new branch on the wellness tourism tree. Taking the science of brain health direct to the consumer, it is perhaps the only multi-day, science-based, brain-health-focused luxury retreat available on a year-round basis. Story and photos by Anne Dimon
The program has been developed with behavioral neuroscience as the foundation, and the main goal is to help guests understand what it is one can do to keep the brain healthy, and the why behind it. Educational not clinical, the LifeWorks program teaches one how to take care of the brain by changing behaviour. Because, says Dr. Rob Velin, LifeWorks’ Chief Science Officer and licensed Psychologist/Neuropsychologist, “It’s the little things we do consistently, over time, that make the biggest differences for the brain.”
I visited recently for a first-hand look and personal experience.
Roughly a 40-minute scenic drive from the town of Bozeman, Montana, past Paradise Valley, Yellowstone Park, Yellowstone River and the town of Livingston (known as “The Gateway to Yellowstone Park), the craggy peaks of the Crazy Mountains etched against the horizon announce that we are nearing our destination.
There is no signage when we pull up to the gates. In fact, from this vantage point, there is also no sign of the lodge. But as we drive on, there it sits surrounded by 300 acres of open fields and against a backdrop of two mountain ranges. The Crazies on one side, the Absaroka Mountains on the other. If peace, quiet and nature is what one seeks. One has arrived.
Inside, the traditional Montana lodge looks and feels very much like someone’s private residence. An imposing, two-sided stone fireplace affords a warm welcome while simultaneously warming the intimate reception area, living room and adjacent dining room. Doors open onto several decks overlooking the wide expanse of fields and looming mountains beyond.
On the lower level there’s a gym, a room set up for educational sessions and another that houses the equipment needed for the neurofeedback sessions that all guests experience as part of the program.
There are just eight guest rooms at this intimate pine lodge, and the maximum capacity for a retreat is 16 people, tops, although nearby off-site housing is available for larger groups.
Guest rooms are beautifully appointed and totally in keeping with the traditional Montana lodge décor affording a comfortable sense of place. All rooms offer many of the features and amenities you’d find in a five-star hotel including bathtubs, robes, safes and Wifi, but there are no TVs or phones in guestrooms. “Everything is intentional here,” Dr. Velin, points out, “and it’s all about the brain” and that includes no TVs or phones. Instead, you’ll find in-room diffusers and a selection of essential oils plus an Amazon Echo so each guest can select a scent, meditation, ambient spa sounds or music of their choosing to help with sleep or to reenergize. Other elements supporting the overall intention are the locally made and organically-certified bathroom amenities, and live potted plants spread throughout the lodge that clean the air. For instance, I’m told that the Snake Plant – in a nighttime process – converts CO2 to 02 while we sleep.
It’s Monday, the first night of my visit and I am having a fireside chat with Dr. Velin.
And, it’s not just because I’m a visiting journalist, this nightly post-dinner event is actually a scheduled part of the customized three or five-night program. Each evening, guests cozy up around the imposing stone fireplace for a review of the day’s sessions and activities and further discussion on the prevailing topic of brain health, and all that the subject entails.
Over the three-day customized program that I experienced, the daily schedule included set times for meals, time for stretch, cardio or weight-bearing exercises, time for yoga and meditation, educational sessions and neurofeedback.The daily program runs generally from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. with scheduled slots for personal down time.
Cardio activities in nature are frequently worked into the program. My visit, for instance, included an afternoon of cross-country skiing at the nearby Cross Cut Mountain Sports Center with over 21 miles (35 km) of groomed trails. A variety of other optional nature activities are also available.
Also incorporated is a daily (or twice daily depending on the program) neurofeedback session that has me sitting in front of a screen watching what could be called “brain games.” But I see them more as exercises for the brain because, truth be told – sitting there quietly with non-invasive wiring attaching your brain to the nearby computer so a trained neurofeedback specialist can “read” your brain waves – is very boring. “Don’t overthink this, I’m told. Let your brain do the work.“ In layman terms, here’s how it’s supposed to work: Science tells us that these neurofeedback exercises train the brain to optimize and balance the brain waves which promotes positive neuroplasticity (changes in the brain) which, in turn, improves overall brain function and resiliency. Dating back to the launch of the space program, Neurofeedback has been used clinically since the 1960s. It’s also supposed to help you sleep better.
The Why, What and How of Better Brain Health
Over the course of the three and five-day programs, intimate and engaging educational sessions – led by Dr. Velin himself or his Director of Neuroscience, Mendy Bucy – cover the Why, What and How of Better Brain Health. WHY do we need to do certainly little things over time to maintain a healthy brain. WHAT we need to do. And, HOW to implement.
The LifeWorks’ tag line is Your Guides to Better Brain Health, and the objective is to help program participants learn to age well from the brain’s perspective. “Every thought, sensation, feeling, heartbeat and breath begins in the brain, and what is good for the brain is also, generally, good for the rest of the body,” says Dr. Velin.
Because we all have a brain that, supposedly, we all want to keep healthy for the long term, I found the information fascinating. As I am sure you will as well. For instance, did you know:
– Ninety-five per cent of what we know about the brain, we have learned in the last five to 10 years.
– At the going rate, it is estimated that there will be 16 million people in the U.S. with Alzheimer’s by 2050 and there is currently no cure and no treatment.
– Genetics certainly plays a role but science tells us that a whopping percentage is non-genetic. And, depending on which factors we’re talking about, the vast majority of risk is likely under our control. Put differently, that means that what we do on a daily and long-term basis can certainly help reduce the risk of dementia, with studies showing that some healthy habits and practices can reduce the risk by well-over 50 percent.
– Dementia, including Alzheimer’s(which accounts for up to 80% of all dementia) does not necessarily come with normal aging but the risk increases with age. So, part of the WHY is to reduce that risk. Science has yet to figure out the exact cause of Alzheimer’sso the rational is that it is best to keep the brain healthy and resilient before the potential onset. Now, seriously, who can argue with that?
WHAT can do for better brain health?
According to Velin, “we are living longer, but we’re outliving our brains.” He says, “the brain’s job is to adapt to a changing environment to ensure our survival, and it is remarkably malleable.” But the big question is: How can we ensure the brain will change positively not negatively? By doing the things that science tells us will help change the brain in positive ways.
To that end, LIfeWorks has created the 7 Platforms of Better Brain Health:
- Cognitive Training – Think fitness for the brain, cognitive activity decreases the risk of symptoms of any form of dementia.
- Physical Conditioning – Exercise sends blood to the brain and has an impact at different levels including strengthening the brain. Studies show that physical conditioning has the potential to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease by up to 50%.
- Nutrition – Think of eating the right foods as putting a better gas in your car and getting better mileage. Good nutrition promotes optimal function. For instance, based on major studies over extended periods of time, the Mind Diet has shown to reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’sby up to 53%. The LifeWorks program educates and promotes the brain benefits of the Enhanced MIND diet. For those of you not familiar with the science-based MIND diet, the key components include: green leafy vegetables, other vegetables, berries, nuts, whole grains, beans, fish, chicken or turkey and wine (one glass per day) along with the reduction of consumption of red meat, cheese, butter, pastries and sweets. The Enhanced MIND diet takes the MIND diet two steps further: 1.) removing most of the known inflammatory trigger foods and 2.) increasing the servings of vegetables.
- Mindfulness / Yoga – The better you train the brain to slow down, the more effective it will be at slowing down for much needed relaxation and stress management.
- Adventure Biophilia (nature) – The brain has a natural affinity with nature and simply spending time in nature can be healing and nurturing. Dr. Velin explains that the “adventure” part does not necessarily have to be an “adventure” by the normal definition. He tells me about one recent guest from the city who found it a personal “adventure” to simply sit on the lodge’s deck and watch the sun set over the mountains.
- Sleep Optimization – The primary reason we sleep is for the brain. For example, during sleep, memories are consolidated and cellular cleansing takes place. A minimum of six hours per night is recommended.
- Stress Management – While some form of stress is considered good, the effects of increased stress levels can have a negative effect on the immune system as well as on the brain. And, we definitely want to avoid chronic stress which causes high levels of cortisol. Dr. Velin tells us the “neuroplasticity is negatively affected when the brain is overly stressed on an ongoing basis.”
These seven platforms will, among other things, not only strengthen the brain but also the immune system – which, of course, is good for keeping the entire body healthy.
HOW to implement little behaviors to strengthen the brain and lower the risk of dementia
As we all know, any program has to be sustainable so we may not be able to implement allrisk-lowering recommendations at once. The LifeWorks program leaves each participant with the What’s Next. You leave with suggested tips and “tools” to help change daily behaviour in small and sustainable ways. For instance:
- Keep your brain active and challenged. If you use an expression such as – “geeze, this is frustrating” or “darn this is difficult” – when working on your web site or figuring out a technical problem, or when learning a new skill – such as a new language or how to play a musical instrument – then you are keeping your brain active at the highest level. If a task is already or becomes too easy over time, then you are not getting the prime benefits of “exercising” your brain.
- If you already have a day job that constantly challenges your brain, then take a 10-minute break from work every 50 minutes. Let your mind relax with things such as a guided meditation, a relaxing and refreshing yoga pose, working in the garden, listening to relaxing music, working on an art project, even sweeping the floor, raking leaves or anything else that disengages the brain from having to think is probably good.
- Plan for 30 minutes of aerobic exercise (any form of exercise that makes you work to catch your breath) at least four times a week. And, resistance/weight baring exercises (i.e. lifting weights, climbing stairs, push-ups, etc.) 15 minutes, two or three times a week.
- At least once a week, plan for one social event with friends or family.
- Consume just one more vegetable every day. This could be via a juice blend, a smoothie or in a soup.
- Cut back on sugary sweets and alcohol at least two hours before bedtime to help with sleep optimization.
You’ll leave many other suggestions for little changes that you will pick up over the three to five -day program.
There are many things I loved about LIfeWorks: the nature setting, the food, the education about something – maintaining a healthy brain – that we should all be interested in and, mostly the kind, knowledgeable and accommodating people who make up the dedicated team.
LifeWorks is not inexpensive. When it comes to cost, it’s probably on par with a luxury all-inclusive cruise or a week at a chateaux in the South of France. Also, keep in mind that long term memory care facilities are also expensive, and the maintenance of quality of life is invaluable, so, what we are looking at value here. What’s it worth to you to live life – as long as it lasts – with a healthy brain? The LifeWorks program allows you to walk away with the knowledge of the why, what and how to do just that.
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